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Credibility concerns in Missouri shooting probe

By David A. Lieb

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Aug. 18 2014 8:46 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, Aug. 18 2014 8:46 a.m. MDT

A protester stands in the street after police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer last Saturday in Ferguson, Mo. As night fell Sunday in Ferguson, another peaceful protest quickly deteriorated after marchers pushed toward one end of a street. Police attempted to push them back by firing tear gas and shouting over a bullhorn that the protest was no longer peaceful. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Charlie Riedel, AP

FERGUSON, Mo. — After a week of violent clashes between police and protesters, Missouri authorities leading the investigation into the police shooting death of an unarmed black teenager are increasingly facing questions about whether their eventual findings can be seen as credible among residents who are highly distrustful of those in charge.

The coming days and weeks will be crucial as grand jurors begin hearing evidence that will help determine whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson is charged with a state crime for the Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

The U.S. Justice Department is conducting a separate civil rights investigation, which could mean there are two decisions about whether to charge Wilson, who is white.

The state's case is being overseen by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, who is white, and remains in charge despite mounting pressure to step aside from some local residents and black St. Louis area officials who believe he cannot be impartial.

In some other prominent cases — most notably, the 2012 racially charged shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida — special state prosecutors have been appointed to determine whether to pursue charges. That sometimes has occurred only after the local authorities took no action.

But under Missouri law, it "would be highly, highly, highly unusual" for a prosecutor to step aside merely because of racial tensions in a high-profile case, said Peter Joy, a Washington University law professor who directs the school's Criminal Justice Clinic. That's because in Missouri, "the buck stops with the head prosecutor" in each county.

Missouri law allows two avenues for outside prosecutors. The local prosecutor can ask for help from the governor, who can appoint the state attorney general's office to the case, or a court can appoint a special prosecutor if the elected one has a conflict of interest.

Police shootings don't automatically qualify as conflicts of interest and often are handled by local prosecutors.

"Just because the case is really hot and really controversial would not be a reason why I would seek a special prosecutor," said Eric Zahnd, a Kansas City-area prosecutor who is a past president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Police say Brown failed to move out of the center of the street when Wilson asked him to, and a scuffle ensued before he was shot. Witnesses say Brown had his hands up as Wilson fired multiple rounds.

Wilson, a six-year police veteran who had no previous complaints against him, has been on paid administrative leave since the shooting and the department has refused to comment on his whereabouts. Associated Press reporters have been unable to contact him at any addresses or phone numbers listed under that name in the St. Louis area.

In the predominantly black St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, where the shooting occurred, many residents say they have long been harassed and intimidated by the police department, which has just three black officers on its 53-member force. They also have no confidence in McCulloch, who has been a prosecutor since 1991.

"He's not going to prosecute the police officers," said Robert Fowler, a 48-year-old electrician. "In the ghetto ... every police officer, he's letting go free. They call it justifiable homicide."

Part of the skepticism stems from McCulloch's past. He comes from a family of police officers and, in 1964 when McCulloch was 12 years old, his father was fatally shot while responding to a call. Others point to a 2000 case in which McCulloch brought no charges against two officers who fired 21 shots into a vehicle, killing two black men during an attempted drug arrest. The U.S Justice Department also reviewed the case and decided a year later not to charge the officers.

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