Gov. Jay Nixon defended his decision not to replace a local prosecutor probing the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer, a day ahead of the funeral of the young man whose death sparked days of civil unrest in Ferguson.
Nixon said St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch is backed by voters and that a grand jury inquiry into Brown’s death will be diligent. Ferguson community leaders and the Rev. Al Sharpton, a top civil rights activist, have questioned McCulloch’s ability to present a fair case.
“He was elected overwhelmingly by the people a number of times, he’s been through a lot,” Nixon said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Certainly with this level of attention I think everyone will work hard to do their best work.”
The grand jury has begun hearing evidence on whether to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Brown, who was shot six times Aug. 9 by the police officer, spurring days of civil unrest.
Black residents have expressed concerns that McCulloch, whose police-officer father was killed in a shooting by a black man more than 50 years ago, couldn’t conduct an impartial investigation and should recuse himself. McCulloch has said Nixon should decide whether he should remain on the case.
Nixon dispatched the Highway Patrol and later the National Guard to break up clashes between heavily armed police and demonstrators hurling rocks and gasoline bombs. Nixon directed the National Guard to begin leaving Ferguson last week as the violence has subsided.
Nixon said Sunday that he’s convinced the city has had a “positive transition” away from the violence.
“We’ve been working hard over the last two weeks but particularly over the last 10 days to really see progress,” he said. “And I’m heartened by that.”
Sharpton, speaking later on the same show, called for federal legislation to address police abuses and also called for a different lead investigator for the Ferguson shooting.
“Justice is a fair and impartial investigation,” Sharpton said. “Too often with local prosecutors, we don’t get that.”
The shooting has focused international attention on a city of 21,000 people that has diminishing economic prospects and a marked imbalance in police targeting of black residents.
Ferguson’s median income, which was on par with that of Missouri in 2000, has since fallen behind, now at $37,500 and trailing the state at $47,300 in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Blacks, who are two-thirds of the city’s residents, make up more than 90 percent of its vehicle-stop arrests, according to the state. All but one councilman and three of 53 police officers are white.
McCulloch said last week that the grand jury began hearing evidence on Aug. 20 on whether to indict Wilson, who has been suspended with pay. A decision isn’t expected until at least October. The grand jury includes nine whites and three blacks, a state court judge said last week.
President Barack Obama has offered assurances of a fair investigation and called for an end to violence in statements from the White House. He has also has ordered a formal review of U.S. programs that fund purchases of military-grade equipment by local law enforcement.
With assistance from Lisa Lerer and David Lerman in Washington.