By Matthew Ritchie, AFRO Intern
St. Louis voters took a step towards more effective social justice reform August 7.
In the Democratic primary for the office of prosecuting attorney for St. Louis, Councilman Wesley Bell defeated Robert McCulloch in an upset victory, ousting the 27-year veteran prosecutor. McCulloch was the prosecutor who oversaw the grand jury inquiry of the 2014 killing of unarmed Black teen Michael Brown.
Bell’s victory may have come as a shock to some, but he defeated the incumbent by more than 13 points. His victory in the primary all but guarantees him the position, as there was no Republican candidate in the race.
He had gained a large amount of support from progressive Democrats, including influential endorsements from multiple political action committees concerned with social justice such as Real Justice, activist Shaun King’s organization, Democracy for America and Color of Change.
McCulloch made national and international headlines with his handling of the Michael Brown case four years ago. He was criticized for how he ran the investigation of Darren Wilson, the White police officer who shot Brown after an altercation in the street. McCulloch neglected to indict Wilson himself, instead handing the case off to a grand jury. Wilson ended up not being indicted for killing the unarmed Black teen. This prompted a federal investigation by the Justice Department into the systematic racism of the Ferguson police department.
The loss by McCulloch is seen as an indictment on his actions during the investigation. Critics believed that he “cherry-picked” evidence for the grand jury, which led to the lack of indictment. Others believed that he should have recused himself from the investigation and appointed a special prosecutor.
Bell hopefully represents a step towards a new era for the St. Louis justice system. He has presented himself as a reformer for the justice system, pledging to end the cash bail system, which disproportionately targets and affects those in poverty and African Americans. He has also promised to never pursue the death penalty in criminal cases. This is in stark contrast to McCulloch, who often sought the death penalty.
Bell will also carry the fight for justice reform in the form of drug offenses. During his campaign, he said he would refuse to prosecute low level, nonviolent marijuana offenses. He has said he will allow those with addictions and nonviolent drug offenses to be diverted from the path of incarceration and moved towards treatment.
When Bell takes office after the November general election, he will become St. Louis’ first African-American prosecuting attorney.