ST. LOUIS — With a grand jury decision and a local election looming, the Rev. Al Sharpton returned to St. Louis on Friday to renew calls for the federal prosecution of a white police officer who shot and killed a black 18-year-old in the nearby suburb of Ferguson.
The civil rights activist said leaks about the supposedly secret St. Louis County grand jury deliberations undermine the local inquiry into whether to indict Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson in Michael Brown's killing. The panel is expected to complete its review by mid-November, independent of Justice Department investigations into both Brown's death and the broader practices of the Ferguson department.
Legal analysts have said leaked information about Wilson's testimony to investigators could be an attempt to prepare the public for the possibility that the grand jury might recommend he not face charges.
"The grand jury is tainted. The confidence of the family has been shattered," Sharpton said after meeting briefly with Brown's parents and local activists at a breakfast rally before returning to New York. "We should turn this over to the federal government."
The federal investigation remains open, but investigators face a tall burden in trying to mount a civil rights prosecution against Wilson. The Justice Department would need to prove that he willfully deprived Brown of his civil rights, a challenging standard, especially since police officers are given wide latitude in their use of force. History shows civil rights prosecutions of police officers are far easier to bring in instances when an officer attacks a handcuffed person, or beats someone already in custody, than in a case involving a fluid, ongoing physical struggle.
Brown was unarmed when Wilson encountered him walking in the street with a friend. A scuffle started while Wilson was still in his police SUV and spilled into the street. Brown was shot multiple times. Witness accounts of what happened varied.
Sharpton's remarks were followed by a training of volunteer "justice disciples" who will monitor the police response to anticipated protests over the upcoming grand jury decision. He's scheduled to again join Brown's parents Monday at a get-out-the-vote rally in St. Louis, with a particular emphasis on a St. Louis County executive race that has largely become a referendum on Ferguson.
Sharpton, who delivered the eulogy at Brown's funeral and has joined Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden at news conferences in Ferguson, Atlanta and Washington, said published reports suggesting Ferguson chief Tom Jackson was being forced to step down distract from the fundamental point of the Ferguson protests and what organizers call a broader social movement.
"Don't act like you can exchange a job for justice," he said. "To suggest that just changing who the chief is answers how this young man was killed is an insult to the intelligence."
Jackson, meanwhile, criticized Attorney General Eric Holder's recent call for "wholesale change" in the department.
The Ferguson chief told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Holder's comments in Washington this week were "irresponsible" while the federal investigations continue. Jackson said he is "low-hanging fruit" for critics but has no plans to resign.
"I think he's about to leave office and needs to say he accomplished something in Ferguson," Jackson said of Holder, who has announced his resignation but plans to remain in office until a replacement is confirmed.
Associated Press Writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report. Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier