Archive for August, 2014

It is troubling, to say the least, to learn that 18-year-old Michael Brown committed a strong-arm robbery at a convenience story several minutes before a police officer with six years of experience shot and killed him in the street.

Equally as troubling, to me, is the fact that Brown’s accomplice in the robbery was 22-year-old Dorian Johnson, who may have been the only eyewitness to the entire altercation between 28-year-old Officer Darren Wilson and Brown and Johnson.

Johnson’s participation in the robbery — where no weapon was used but where Brown towered menacingly over a store clerk and shoved him before walking out — casts great doubt on Johnson’s story that Brown was an innocent victim in the shooting.

Johnson went on national TV with a shirt and tie and with former St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. sitting beside him and he told his story, all the while knowing he had participated in a robbery minutes before the fateful event.

That’s not good. Not good at all. To retain any credibility, Johnson should have gotten a good, experienced trial lawyer — instead of a celebrity lawyer — and told him or her the whole story and then kept his mouth shut until trial…if there was one.

That’s not to say that Johnson’s participation in the robbery would be admitted into testimony at trial  (I’ll get to that), but the mere public knowledge of his participation demeans him as a prospective witness and could well color investigators’ determination of whether to file charges against Officer Wilson.

It is extremely important — critical, even — that Officer Wilson did not know about the robbery at the time he ordered Brown and J0hnson to get out of a street they were walking in and to go to the sidewalk.

If Johnson’s account is true, Officer Wilson’s first words to them were, “Get the fuck to the sidewalk.” Again, if that is true, those words set the tone for whatever ensued.

If Officer Wilson did not say that, however, and it turns out that Johnson is lying about that and more, it could greatly reduce the chances that Officer Wilson will face criminal charges, or that he would be convicted if he was charged.


This frame from video of the convenience-story robbery exploded the myth of Michael Brown (left) as a “gentle giant,” the term an uncle used a couple of days ago.

That’s because almost everyone in the U.S. now knows, or soon will know, that Brown and Johnson had participated in a robbery minutes before the fatal confrontation. I would not expect that to be admitted into evidence because it seems almost certain that the robbery and the police confrontation were isolated incidents.

(You could argue, I suppose, that Brown, fresh off the confrontation with the convenience store owner, was already in a bellicose mood and primed for more confrontation, but again it would be legally moot, in theory. It is worth noting, too, that Brown stood 6-4 and weighed 292 pounds.)

In any event, I would expect most of the jurors to know, from news accounts, what preceded the street confrontation, and that knowledge would likely affect their perception of the case.

The St. Louis County Police Department and the F.B.I. are conducting parallel investigations. The police will determine if Wilson should face state charges, and the F.B.I. will determine whether to charge Officer Wilson with violating Brown’s civil rights. In either case, if charges are filed, they would likely be felonies. A misdemeanor charge would be just as incendiary, in my view, as no charges at all.


In my first post on the police confrontation, on Tuesday, I predicted that the officer (today identified as Wilson) would not only would be charged with manslaughter but would be convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

That post triggered 44 comments from a dozen or more people, expressing various views of the situation.

In light of the information that has emerged today, the comment that now stands out as the wisest and most pertinent came from my friend Gus Buttice, a longtime bailiff for a St. Louis City Circuit Court judge. As I noted in the comments, Gus has seen a lot of cases involving a lot of surprising developments.

Here are the key excerpts (with a little bit of grammatical upgrading) from Gus’s comment:

“Let’s not jump to any conclusion. No one, and I do mean no one, knows what happened out there. Everything is being played very close to the vest for obvious reasons…Let the system work its best. We’ve (seen) this over and over again and we have not learned yet: A jury is a final judge, not street rhetoric or mob actions.”

Gus was absolutely right. Many of us, including me for sure, have not learned yet.


You might be curious about the term “strong-arm robbery.”

Today, St. Louis TV station KSDK quoted St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch on the definition:

“The use of physical force in a robbery. If someone is stealing, and another person makes an attempt to stop them, and then physical force is used to complete the act that is strong-arm robbery.

“It’s also called ‘robbery in the 2nd degree, and there is no weapon other than physical force used.

“If a weapon is used in a robbery, then the charge would be ‘robbery in the 1st degree.”

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It’s pleasantly amazing, isn’t it, to see an intense, dangerous situation defused when common sense and de-escalation are brought to bear?

Overnight, literally, the situation in Ferguson, MO, went from clouds of tear gas and street clashes between police officers and protesters to the new security chief walking with protesters and holding the hand of at least one resident while listening to her express her thoughts.

And who can we thank for this turnaround?

Mainly President Barack Obama, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

All three took key steps and made key statements Thursday that had the ultimate effect of letting the air out of the balloon that had been getting increasingly taut ever since 18-year-old Michael Brown was gunned down by a Ferguson police officer last week.

Wednesday’s key developments:

:: Obama decried attacks on the police and on protesters and asked for “peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson.” The New York Times said he had spoken to Nixon “and confirmed that he (Obama) had instructed the Justice Department and the F.B.I. to investigate the fatal shooting ‘to help determine exactly what happened and to see that justice is done.’ ”

:: Saying it was time for “a different tone,” Nixon pulled out the St. Louis County police and called in the Highway Patrol. Brilliantly, someone, maybe Nixon, placed in charge of security a black patrol captain who grew up in the St. Louis area. “We’re starting a new partnership today,” Capt. Ronald S. Johnson said. “We’re going to move forward today, to put yesterday and the day before behind us.”

:: McCaskill told reporters: “The militarization of the response became more of a problem than any solution.”

Again, isn’t it gratifying to see people in authority speak and act wisely and turn near hysteria into reflection and reconsideration?


Capt. Johnson walking with protesters in Ferguson

One of the first things Captain Johnson did was tell troops not to carry tear-gas masks. “In the early evening,” the Times story said, “he accompanied several groups of protesters through the streets, clasping hands, listening to stories…”

At one point, a woman named Karen Wood approached him and said, “Do you have a minute to at least talk to, you know, a parent?”

“As sweat stained his blue uniform,” the story said, “he clasped Ms. Wood’s right hand and stood, for several minutes, listening to her story.”

“Our youth are out here without guidance, without leadership,” Ms. Wood said. “It’s important that they know there is an order.”

The Times’ story said the conversation between the trooper and the lady concluded with Johnson patting Wood on the shoulder and saying softly, “I thank you. I thank you for your passion, and we’re going to get better.”

I don’t know about you, but the report of that interaction almost brought tears to my eyes.

What a message Johnson brought to Ferguson: I hear you and I feel your pain.

And this is one guy, who, it’s very clear, really does feel their pain.

Bravo, Mr. President. Congratulations, Gov. Nixon. And thank you, thank you, Captain Johnson.

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Regardless of what happened in Ferguson last week just before a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, one thing is certain: The officer had absolutely no business shooting the young man.

This has all the looks of a case where the officer was young, hot-headed and racist.

Although the officer hasn’t been identified, we know from the St. Louis County police chief that he had been on the force six years. I think it’s reasonable to assume that this was an officer who had either started with the Ferguson Police Department or, perhaps, had started at an even smaller department and then caught on with the 53-person Ferguson force.

By the way, 50 of those 53 officers are white, and that it a town where more than two-thirds of the city’s 21,000 residents are black.

As for his temperament, the officer apparently demonstrated his lack of restraint immediately upon encountering Brown and his friend Dorin Johnson, 22, as they walked in the street.

“Get the fuck on the sidewalk,” were the officer’s first words, according to Johnson.



Clearly, the officer was pissed off either before he came upon Brown and Johnson or as soon as he saw them committing the audacious act of walking in the street.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, then, that a few moments later — after a few words might have been exchanged, after minimal contact was made or after the two “perps” simply failed to move to the sidewalk — that the officer fired several shots at the unarmed Brown (who might even have had his hands raised as if surrendering) and killed him.

For some people, the key point is going to be whether Brown attempted to grab the officer’s gun while the officer was in the car.

A couple of points need to be made regarding that possible scenario.

First, unless the officer had already drawn his gun, it seems not only unlikely but also nearly impossible for Brown to have reached into the car and attempted to wrestle the officer’s gun from him. If the officer was in the car, you have to presume he was sitting down, which could easily have put the gun out of Brown’s reach, considering that he was outside the car.

So, the officer probably had already drawn the gun. And that makes sense because he had already demonstrated an overreaction to the situation when he camp upon the two.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that before the officer started shooting, Brown did, in fact, attempt to get the gun.

The fact is, he didn’t get it. The officer almost certainly was in control of the situation — certainly the weapon — at all times.

We know that the officer fired several shots, as many as eight or 10. The first was fired inside the police car and the last was fired about 35 feet from the vehicle.

To me, that is extremely strong circumstantial evidence that the officer started shooting very soon and continued shooting while pursuing Brown. If he wasn’t a hot head and he wasn’t a racist, why in the world would he have started shooting? Again, Brown was unarmed — no gun, no knife, no slingshot, not even a rock to throw.

That officer must have felt gratified for a few seconds: In his mind, he had just shown a disrespectful punk who was boss. Yeah, he sure had…

I wonder how long it took for reality to set in…That would be this kind of thought:

“Holy shit, I just shot an unarmed kid who was posing no real threat to me…How the hell am I going to explain this to the chief?”

He had no idea that within a few days, the entire nation would be demanding an explanation.

I’ll make this prediction: The officer will be charged with voluntary manslaughter and will be sentenced to at least 10 years in prison.

This isn’t going to be an O.J. Simpson case; the real perp is going down. Clashing accounts of whether Michael Brown reached for the gun, or even had his hand on it, will not save this hot-headed, racist officer.

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OK, so I was off by a point or two.

Missouri Amendment 7 — the proposed three-quarter-cent sales tax increase for transportation — lost Tuesday by a 59 to 41 percent vote margin.

The final, unofficial count was 590,963 to 407,532.

I predicted a 60-40 defeat.

What went wrong?

The problem was Kansas City. Here, in our own beloved town, “yes” voters prevailed by a count of 18,926 to 18,715 — slightly more than 200 votes.

Maybe it was because publicity about the expanded streetcar proposal (which also failed badly) overshadowed Amendment 7. Maybe it was because The Kansas City Star foolishly endorsed Amendment 7 because a majority of the editorial board was so keen on the streetcar expansion. Maybe it was because Freedom Inc. foolishly endorsed it because the Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City — part of the “concrete cartel” — leaned heavily on Freedom officials and gave them a lot of “walkin’ around money.”

Maybe Kansas City voters aren’t as smart as I thought they were.


Whoosh! And down it went.

To give you a contrast, voters in St. Louis County and St. Louis City defeated Amendment 7 by a margins of 68-32 percent and 66-33 percent respectively, and in Jackson County outside Kansas City the margin was 59 to 41 percent, mirroring the overall state ratio.

Despite the Kansas City result, I am thrilled about the outcome. Thanks very much to all of you who rallied to the cause of Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions, the St. Louis-based campaign committee that led the charge. Your response — gobbling up yard signs, buttonholing your relatives and friends and, in some cases, contributing money — had a big impact. 

We were outspent about $4 million to $30,000, and yet we carved the concrete cartel — the road builders, materials suppliers and engineering companies — into little chunklets.

If they really want more money for statewide transportation projects, it’s time for them to come to the negotiating table and talk about a modest increase in the state’s gas tax, which, at 17 cents a gallon, is sixth lowest in the country.

A nine-cent gas-tax increase would raise about $300 million a year, or $3 billion over 10 years. That’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of projects. That’s a lot of jobs.

Wake up, concrete cartel members, the gig is up; a sales-tax increase is not going to happen.

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Happy election day, everyone…

If you haven’t voted absentee, don’t be a luddy duddy, don’t be a mooncalf, don’t be a jabbernowl — get out and vote!

(Love those phrases, from W.C. Fields in “The Bank Dick.” By the way, “jabbernowl” is a variation of “jobbernowl,” which essentially means “blockhead.”)

So, yes, it is election day, and that means one thing:

It’s time to blow away some of the stupidest, most hair-brained proposals that the Missouri General Assembly has ever come up with.

The worst of the lot are Amendment 1, the so-called “right to farm” amendment, and Amendment 7, the proposed 3/4 cent sales tax for transportation projects.

Amendment 1 is a proposal that only the ignorant and naive can love. I’m talking about people who haven’t done any research on Amendment 1 and who immediately put their hands over their ears and hum when better-informed people try to tell them what a duplicitous proposition it is.

As a Kansas City Star editorial said on Sunday: “That right (to farm) isn’t under attack in the state. In reality, the amendment is a bid to protect factory farms and concentrated agricultural feeding operations from regulations that are needed to protect consumers, the environment and livestock.

“A ‘no’ vote would ensure that Missouri retains crucial powers to protect consumers and communities from big-farming tactics that, for instance, can release noxious animal waste.”

“Noxious” is the right word for Amendment 1. Let’s hope that enough thoughtful voters in Kansas City, Jackson County, St. Louis and St. Louis County turn out to beat this beast.


Then, there’s No. 7, which, of course, I’ve been working against the last three weeks or so. The committee I’ve been working with, Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions, is headed by a St. Louis couple, Tom and Debra Shrout, who own a company that helps communities develop improved transportation programs.

With a campaign “war chest” of about $30,000, we, the opponents, have poked big holes in the proponents’ pitch that Missouri needs “safe roads and new jobs.”

As I have said many times, this is all about shifting the transportation tax burden away from user fees — the gas tax, sales taxes on vehicle purchases and vehicle registration fees — to the general public. As the state Constitution provides, vehicle-related revenue streams are the fairest and most appropriate sources of funds for transportation projects, The sales tax, on the other hand, is the most regressive tax there is, hitting hardest those least able to pay.

As President Obama would say, “It’s not only not right, it ain’t right.”

If the Missouri Department of Transportation can convince the Missouri General Assembly that it needs significantly more money for highways, roads and bridges, the legislature should bring forth a tax proposal that makes sense: a modest increase in Missouri’s 17-cent-per-gallon fuel tax, which is the sixth lowest in the nation.


I have no inkling how Amendment 1 will fare, but if I were betting on Amendment 7, I would put my golf clubs and my hat collection up against a can of corn that voters are going to hand the proponents a big, big defeat.

It won’t match the 86-14 percent margin that we Jackson County voters rang up against the “translational medical research tax” last year, but I think it will be at least 60-40.

People are sick of high sales taxes and new sales-tax proposals that would benefit special interests — in this case, the heavy construction companies, the materials suppliers, the engineering companies and the truckers (who would get a free pass).

As the medical-research tax election showed, Jackson Countians aren’t going to be sucked in any more. I don’t think residents in the rest of the state are going to be sucked in, either.

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For the legions of you (ahem) who are students of journalism, a mystery presented itself today on the Op-Ed page of The Kansas City Star.



Barb Shelly, one of six members of The Star’s editorial board, which decides what positions the paper takes on issues, had a commentary urging readers to vote “no” on Missouri Amendment 7 — the proposed 3/4 cent sales tax increase for transportation projects.

Shelly called Amendment 7 “terrible public policy” and closed her column with this:

“But whatever you decide, just know this: The Missouri legislature (by putting Amendment 7 on the ballot) tossed its integrity under the wheels of a big rig this session, and support for Amendment 7 allows (legislature) members to avoid any consequences.”

That’s pretty strong and persuasive language. And yet…And yet, a couple of weeks ago The Star came out editorially in favor of Amendment 7.



A good friend who reads the paper religiously texted me this morning, saying: “Why did Barbara Shelly come out against when The Star was for?”

Indeed, that is mysterious.

Compounding the mystery is this: A few weeks ago, another editorial board member, Lewis Diuguid wrote a highly critical piece about Amendment 7. In that article, Diuguid noted that Missouri “has one of the lowest fuel taxes in the country,” and added: “The sales tax is regressive and hurts low-income residents the most.”



Besides Shelly and Diuguid, the other board members are Yael Abouhalkah, Steve Paul, publisher Mi-Ai Parrish and editorial page editor Miriam Pepper.

…I have to deviate just a moment here because the Amendment 7 mystery unfolded against the backdrop of a major personnel change on the editorial page. Today, Friday, Aug. 1, is Pepper’s last day at the paper. She has taken a buyout, and yesterday she got a newsroom send-off, complete with speeches and cake, I trust. Pepper’s name should go off the masthead tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, none other than Barb Shelly will be the interim editorial page editor.



In an effort to get to the bottom of the Amendment 7 mystery, I first put in a call to Pepper and left a message. (Didn’t hear back.) I then called Steve Paul, the newest editorial-board member, and he said, “Have you talked to Barb?” That’s all he had to say.

So, I called Shelly, and, very graciously, she explained the reasoning behind the endorsement. She did not go into how the individual board members may have voted, if indeed there was a vote. (It might well have been done by consensus.)

As I suspected (and wrote in an earlier post), Kansas City Question A — the proposed streetcar expansion — played a major role in the board’s decision on Amendment 7.

“We do, as a board, strongly support the streetcar (expansion) and mass transit,” Shelly said. “It is time for Kansas City to get a mass transit system.”



The board members discussed Amendment 7 — and Question A — several times, she said, and ultimately concluded that, collectively, they would swallow their significant reservations about Amendment 7 and endorse it in hopes that the endorsement would boost Question A with voters.

“That was the overriding factor,” Shelly said.

The tie-in with Question A is that state officials have agreed to divert $144 million of the Amendment 7, sales-tax money to help pay for the streetcar system and development of a MAX bus route on Prospect. The payment is conditioned, of course, on voter approval of both Amendment 7 and a new sales tax for the expanded streetcar line.

It was clear to me even before talking to Shelly that the editorial board members wrestled mightily with their decision. And Shelly confirmed that.

“We had spirited discussions, and we were rather conflicted about it,” she said.



As I said, Shelly didn’t say how the individual board members voted or even if a vote was taken. She did say that Parrish, the publisher, did not exert a dominant voice, as she could have, in the debate.




So, here’s my guess on how the vote — or at least the tilt — went.

“Yes” to endorse Amendment 7: Pepper, Abouhalkah, Paul.

“No”: Shelly, Diuguid.


Here’s my prediction: On Tuesday, Missouri voters will overwhelmingly side with Shelly and Diuguid.

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