New St. Louis County prosecutor Wesley Bell is wasting no time implementing changes in how the county approaches crime. But so far he’s not ready to address his biggest issue: whether to reopen the investigation of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Among Bell’s first actions since taking office eight days ago was taking steps to remove three veteran assistant prosecutors, including Kathi Alizadeh, who played a role in presenting evidence to the grand jury in the Ferguson case. Bell, the first African-American to be elected St. Louis County circuit attorney, also has already made significant policy changes, including announcing Tuesday that his office will seek counseling, rather than jail, for opioid abusers.
But at a news conference announcing the latest sea change, Bell declined comment on whether he’ll reconsider charging Ferguson officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death.
Other policy changes he’s made include ending prosecutions for most marijuana possession cases, eliminating cash bail in misdemeanor and low-level felonies, and using civil rather than criminal procedures for people who fail to pay child support.
Bell faces no restrictions in re-examining Brown’s death for potential murder charges. Wilson was never charged and tried, so there is no double-jeopardy. There is no statute of limitations on filing murder charges.
It’s been nearly 4 1/2 years since the shooting of the black and unarmed 18-year-old put Ferguson in the spotlight of the national Black Lives Matter movement. On a hot August day in 2014, Wilson, a white officer, told Brown and another young black man to stop walking on the street. That led to an argument and a fight between Wilson and Brown.
Moments later, Brown was killed. Wilson claimed the 6-foot-4 nearly 300-pound Brown came at him menacingly. Some people near the shooting scene initially claimed Brown had his hands up in surrender, though a U.S. Department of Justice investigation didn’t find those accounts credible.
Bell’s predecessor, Bob McCulloch, a staunch law-and-order prosecutor in office since 1991, deferred to a grand jury. Many protesters accused McCulloch of guiding jurors to the decision announced in November 2014: Wilson would not be charged. He resigned days later. The Justice Department also later declined to charge Wilson, saying there was no credible evidence to contradict Wilson’s statements that he was acting in self-defense.
The months of protests that followed the shooting and the grand jury decision served as a catalyst for change in Ferguson. The city has implemented municipal court changes. More minority officers have been hired. More blacks now hold key positions in city government.
Two-thirds of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents are black, but just one of six City Council members was black at the time of the shooting. That changed in April 2015 when two black candidates were elected. Bell was one of them.
He seemed a longshot when he announced he would oppose McCulloch in last year’s Democratic primary. Bell won by 14 percentage points.
Civil rights leaders and Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, said the election win was a clear mandate that the Wilson investigation should be reopened.
Bell has remained tight-lipped.
Activist Zaki Baruti, who led several protests in Ferguson, said Bell’s election offered hope for those who want Wilson prosecuted.
“There is value in looking at it from another perspective,” Baruti said. “Maybe we can get justice, because we feel that Michael Brown was unjustly shot and murdered.”
Phone messages left with Wilson’s attorney, James Towey, were not immediately returned.
Peter Joy, a professor at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said it would be “unusual but not unprecedented” for a new prosecutor to reopen an old case and file charges. Joy noted that a prosecutor in Philadelphia initially declined to charge actor Bill Cosby with sexual assault. After someone else was elected, Cosby was charged. He was convicted last year.