CLAYTON, Mo. — Protesters demanding an indictment of the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson are renewing their call for the removal of the county prosecutor who is presenting the case to a grand jury.
Scores of protesters marched Thursday outside the Buzz Westfall Justice Center here, calling for the removal of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch. McCulloch is handling the case of the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
The shooting touched off days of sometimes-violent protests in the St. Louis suburb of 21,000 people.
State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat, was among those delivering what they said were 70,000 signatures on a petition from people around the nation calling for the removal of McCulloch from the case.
McCulloch, who is white, is viewed with distrust by many African Americans in St. Louis County, who say he is overzealous in prosecuting black suspects and lenient toward police officers.
One of his cases is legendary in St. Louis County.
In 2001, two white undercover drug officers shot and killed two black men in the parking lot of a Jack in the Box restaurant, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The officers said the men, who had prior felony convictions in drug and assault cases, tried to escape and drove toward them. However, a federal investigation found that the men were unarmed and that their car had not moved when the officers fired 21 shots into the vehicle, killing both men. That inquiry concluded, however, that the shooting was justified because the officers feared for their lives.
McCulloch refused to prosecute the officers, despite public protests. He said of the dead men, "These guys were bums."
Protesters also question whether McCulloch can impartially prosecute the Brown case because his policeman father was killed while on duty by an African-American man in 1964. McCulloch was 12. His brother, uncle and cousins all worked for the St. Louis police department.
"How can he be fair?" asked Adrian Hubbard, 33, of St. Louis.
In a written statement, McCulloch, who was first elected in 1990, said he will not step aside.
"As I have stated repeatedly, I have no intention of walking away from the responsibilities and duties entrusted to me by the people of this community," he said. "Additionally, there is no basis in the law to do so. I have faithfully and fairly carried out those responsibilities and duties for more than two decades and will continue to do so for at least the next four years."
He said he recognizes that Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has the authority to remove him from the case under the declaration of emergency that Nixon made Saturday. McCulloch said he believes doing so would be a mistake.
"The pressure is now on the governor," Nasheed said.
The governor said in a written statement Tuesday that he was not asking McCulloch to remove himself from the case. "There is a well-established process by which a prosecutor can recuse themselves from a pending investigation," he said.
Nixon said "a vigorous prosecution must now be pursued." A day later, his office said he meant only that the prosecutor should ensure "that justice is served."
Ben Trachtenberg, an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri School of Law, said it is "highly unusual" for a Missouri governor to remove an elected county prosecutor. "It's very unusual because the governor would in effect be saying he doesn't trust the county prosecutor to admit he might be unable to handle the case appropriately.
"The prosecutors in Missouri are elected by the voters of the county," Trachtenberg said. "The prosecutors themselves can request the appointment of a special prosecutor if there is a conflict of interest or some other reason why they can't properly work on a case."
In a letter last week, Nasheed said that if Nixon doesn't seek a special prosecutor and if Wilson is not indicted, "the rioting we witnessed (in Ferguson) will seem like a picnic compared to the havoc that will likely occur."