ST. LOUIS — Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt told Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner in a letter Tuesday that he is “deeply concerned” about people charged with violent felonies being released from jail during the coronavirus pandemic and Gardner’s refusal to identify them.
“The spread of COVID-19 presents profound challenges to institutions across our society, and our criminal justice system is no exception,” Schmitt, a Republican, said in a letter provided to the Post-Dispatch. “But it is imperative that our response to COVID-19 should not increase dangers to public safety.”
Schmitt’s letter follows a Post-Dispatch report that recently released inmates in St. Louis and St. Louis County included defendants charged with violent felonies such as assault, robbery and child molestation. Officials last week said city and county courts and jails were releasing more than 140 inmates to help prevent potential COVID-19 cases within their detention facilities.
The letter highlights 10 recently released defendants facing charges that include burglary, robbery and assault, gun and drug possession and child abuse.
In a written response to Schmitt later Tuesday, Gardner criticized him for making his accusations available to the media before receiving a response from her. “I am deeply disappointed in the inaccuracy of your correspondence and your obvious effort to politicize matters of public safety during this time of crisis in our city and state,” Gardner wrote.
She said she never consented “to the release of violent criminals or any person that would knowingly make our city less safe or expose a victim to danger.”
A separate letter Gardner sent Monday to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and others pushed back on news reports about the release of people facing violent crimes, specifically last week’s release of Mozzio Withers, accused of holding up a woman at gunpoint two years ago in the Central West End. She said her office opposed Withers’ release.
Gardner and District Defender Matthew Mahaffey said last week that they had agreed upon the immediate release of 56 defendants with nonviolent charges or who were suffering from underlying health problems. Mahaffey’s staff sought bail reductions or release in about 190 other cases; Gardner’s prosecutors objected in many of those cases.
The courts, prosecutors, public defender and jails in the city and county have not released the names of those released from jail.
Schmitt’s letter to Gardner on Tuesday included a list of 135 people released from city jails or to other jurisdictions from March 20 to 28. It was not immediately clear if that list included the 56 Gardner and Mahaffey agreed upon, or if all of those had pending charges. Schmitt’s spokesman Chris Nuelle said the list was provided to the attorney general’s office by Jimmie Edwards, St. Louis’ director of public safety. Edwards confirmed his office provided Schmitt’s office inmate data, but he didn’t think it was as many as 135 people.
Nuelle said Gardner is so far the only prosecutor in the state to receive such a letter. He said Schmitt’s criticism of Gardner is not politically driven but “purely based on the safety of Missourians.”
Schmitt’s letter asked Gardner to release the list and continue to provide names of inmates charged with violent felonies who have been released because of COVID-19 concerns.
Many Missourians are already suffering from stress and anxiety, Schmitt said. “Government should not add to their burdens by creating either the perception or the reality that violent offenders are being released unmonitored into their communities — especially not with the overt or tacit complicity of our elected prosecutors.”