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McClellan: Reality is more complicated than it appears on TV

McClellan: Reality is more complicated than it appears on TV

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As a liberal, I find it disquieting whenever the national media covers a story I know something about — and their take is far different than mine.

That happened a couple of weeks ago when “60 Minutes” did a flattering piece on St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner. Serving as right-wing foil was Jeff Roorda, the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association. The premise was simple. Gardner good, Roorda bad.

I’m fine with Roorda bad. He’s confrontational. When the smart thing to do is turn the temperature down, he turns it up.

It was the perception of Gardner that I found objectionable. She was portrayed as a progressive who is bringing high-minded reform to a corrupt system. She is standing tall for everybody, especially the poor and the voiceless.

Reality is so much more complicated.

Gardner’s four and a half years in office have been unexpectedly tempestuous. Her victory in 2016 was followed by bigger news — startling news — when Wesley Bell, a relatively unknown reform candidate, upset Bob McCulloch in the county prosecutor’s race in 2018.

But while things have bumped along in the county, justice being served up in its usual imperfect way, chaos, rather than reform, has defined Gardner’s style. The old hands bailed or were shoved out. Several of these old hands were friends of mine. Despite that association, they were not bad people. More conservative than me, but hey, they were prosecutors.

Actually, Gardner’s election seemed a remarkable experiment. She was coming at this job with a very different angle than we were accustomed to. If one edge of the prosecutorial bloodline is McCulloch, the son of a slain police officer, Gardner is nearer the other edge. Her aunt was married to Sam Petty, the Black revolutionary who turned into the region’s most notorious heroin dealer. Gardner’s brother went to prison for robbery.

Maybe this perspective is just what we need, many of us thought. Maybe somebody who sees the humanity in everybody can be our guide.

That has not worked out. A huge show trial against then-Gov. Eric Greitens was to set the tone for Gardner’s tenure. Despite having an office of prosecutors and investigators, Gardner, without explanation, hired a special prosecutor and a special investigator. We have no idea how well the prosecutor would have performed because the investigator was so inept — I’m being kind — that he was charged with perjury and a felony charge was dropped against Greitens. You are not allowed to lie even to convict a despicable man.

Greitens is now attempting a political comeback. The investigator’s trial is pending.

Mostly, though, it has been the unexplained refusals to prosecute that rankle. The complaints don’t come just from the right. Shortly before she retired last fall, Sgt. Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police, appeared on a local PBS show and said she had taken a well-documented murder investigation to Gardner’s office with no result.

Earlier this month, Malik Ross was sentenced in federal court for stealing money from his employer. The federal prosecutor asked the judge to sentence Ross above the guidelines because he had stolen the money in order to leave town after shooting 7-year-old Xavier Usanga in 2019. The shooting occurred when Ross, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying his Glock, fired at two teenagers. One was struck. One of the errant rounds killed Xavier.

The evidence against Ross seemed solid. He admitted to police that he had fired at the teenagers, and that he had stolen the money to get out of town because of the publicity created by the death of the child. But he claimed to have fired in self-defense — although audio from a nearby security camera recorded only one weapon being fired, and the shell casings recovered were from only one weapon. Gardner did not charge Ross with anything.

At the federal sentencing earlier this month, Ross’ attorney argued that the judge shouldn’t take into consideration a crime for which her client had not even been charged. Frankly, I agreed with her, but what is the system supposed to do when the elected prosecutor won’t do her job?

Federal sentencing guidelines called for a maximum sentence of 14 months. The judge, a Clinton appointee, gave Ross 10 years.

Couldn’t “60 Minutes” have mentioned something about these self-created controversies? Or how about the notion that witness services are a form of bribery because the witness only gets the services if he or she testifies? Couldn’t that idea be challenged?

Apparently not. It’s ever so much easier to blame things on racism. And there’s plenty of it — in this city and around the country. But who suffers when criminals go unpunished?

Yet, Gardner was just reelected. That’s the real story. The people approve of what Gardner’s doing, and not doing.

Same thing with Roorda. He serves at the pleasure of his employer. The men and women of the St. Louis Police Department clearly want somebody confrontational.

Relations between the city cops and the Black community were bad long before Roorda, and crime was out of control long before Gardner, but both have made things worse.

Neither will be part of the solution, if there ever is a solution.

Maybe one day Roorda’s services won’t be perceived as necessary and somebody a little more conciliatory will take his job. Maybe Gardner will be appointed to a post in the Justice Department where she can decry racism and the city can get a prosecutor who prosecutes. Maybe “60 Minutes” will regain its journalistic bearings and rediscover that life is seldom black and white.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will plod along in the real world.

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