Multnomah County District Attorneys Walked Out of a Conference Presentation Because of Ferguson Prosecutor’s “Offensive and Unprofessional” Comments

Bob McCulloch became a controversial figure after he failed to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill (Cheyenne Thorpe / Multnomah County)

Several Oregon prosecutors—including Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill—were so offended by a conference presentation given this month by a Missouri prosecutor that they walked out.

The controversial presentation was delivered by Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor who in 2014 declined to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo.

McCulloch spoke at the Oregon District Attorney Association summer conference in Bend on Aug. 16., (He had just unexpectedly lost re-election the prior week.) He gave a presentation in the morning and the keynote speech at dinner in the evening.

Underhill says he felt uncomfortable because of "unprofessional and offensive" comments McCulloch made during his first presentation in the middle of the day. Other attendees say the photos and comments McCulloch presented created a message that was racially insensitive and at odds with their values.

Underhill watched the first presentation, but stepped out several times and did not stay until the end. He decided to skip McCulloch's keynote speech at the evening's dinner—along with all of the other Multnomah County prosecutors present at the conference.

He shared with WW an email he wrote to his staff that reflects his views on McCulloch's comments.

"I found Mr. McCulloch's remarks to be offensive and unprofessional. Having spoken with all of the members of our office who were present, I know that every MCDA attendee agrees," Underhill said. "Mr. McCulloch was the scheduled keynote speaker at the conference dinner that evening. I chose not to attend the conference dinner, and I am proud to say every member of the Multnomah County DA's Office who attended the conference also declined to attend the dinner and chose, by their actions, like me, to repudiate the offensive message to which we had been subjected to earlier that day."

Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel echoed some of those concerns.

"What I heard offended me," Hummel says.

Hummel says McCulloch mocked the American Civil Liberties Union for the role it played in criticizing the local officials who investigated the fatal police shooting that killed Michael Brown.

McCulloch also criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who served under President Barack Obama.

At one point, Hummel says McCulloch showed a photo of four or five young black people standing together and said: "This is what we're dealing with."

"The implication was that these kids were thugs," Hummel says. "I was bothered by the implicit nature of his words."

Hummel also declined to attend McCulloch's keynote speech in the evening.

McCulloch could not immediately be reached for comment.

Not all of the district attorneys present agreed that McCulloch's presentation was racially insensitive.

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis says he thinks McCulloch was unrestrained during the presentation, perhaps because he had just lost his election. McCulloch had been the lead prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County, Mo., since 1991.

"He may have been a little more candid than he would have been otherwise," says Marquis, who has served in leadership of the National District Attorneys Association with McCulloch.

But Marquis says nothing he heard in the presentation seemed inappropriate or angry. He says the ODAA has invited controversial speakers to conferences in the past, including Rudy Giuliani and former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynn Abraham, who was nicknamed the "Queen of Death" for frequently pursuing the death penalty.

Hummel says he does not necessarily object to inviting controversial speakers like McCulloch to future conferences, but he says the keynote speech is an honor and should not have been offered to McCulloch.

"Conferences should be about learning and hearing from people who may have a different viewpoint than you," he says. "In a future conference, we should hear from a progressive district attorney who also had a controversial case and hear her take on it. If we only hear from the McCulloch side of things that would be a loss for the membership."

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