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Ferguson loses three more cases against protesters

Ferguson loses three more cases against protesters

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Ferguson spends thousands hiring private lawyers to prosecute municipal court cases

St. Louis County Associate Circuit Judge Joseph Dueker listens as lawyers argue a failure to comply case against Jasmine Woods on Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Woods was one of 11 people arrested outside the Ferguson Police Department after a prayer vigil on Aug. 11, 2014. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

FERGUSON • A St. Louis County judge has ruled against the city of Ferguson in three cases that stemmed from arrests when protesters gathered after a prayer vigil outside the Police Department on Aug. 11, 2014, following the shooting death of Michael Brown.

The defendants — Keith Rose, Michael Lhotak and Jasmine Woods — all had been charged with failure-to-comply, a charge that the U.S. Justice Department has accused Ferguson police of routinely abusing.

The city alleged that all three defendants had disobeyed officers’ orders to leave the area during the August protest. The defendants were represented for free by the nonprofit Arch City Defenders and lawyer Justin Farishon.

In an order dated Tuesday, Judge Joseph S. Dueker found Rose not guilty. Rose learned of the decision Wednesday.

In the other two cases, he went even further, granting motions for judgment of acquittal — an unusual step that means the evidence was so weak no reasonable person could find the defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The cases were tried in April and cost the city thousands of dollars in legal fees.

During the trials, the prosecution could not produce witnesses to the alleged crimes, the officers who made the arrests, or anyone who could say that the defendants heard the order to disperse.

City Attorney Stephanie Karr, Ferguson’s chief prosecutor and a lawyer with Curtis, Heinz, Garrett and O’Keefe, has defended the prosecutions, saying in an email, that violations of law are “contrary to the public health, safety and welfare. Therefore, the public interest is served by taking action to prevent further violations of the law by making offenders accountable.”

Karr’s colleague J. Patrick Chassaing served as the prosecutor in the trials and said that some demonstrators threatened the lives of the police officers, their spouses and children during the Aug. 11 protests. He said the “cases were pursued in order to deter others participating in future protests from assuming there are no limits or parameters to their activities...”

Last week, the city posted an advertisement for a new prosecutor.

Officials have said they no longer want to have the same lawyers from the same firm serving as prosecutor and city attorney.

On Monday, protesters held a demonstration at Ferguson’s municipal court and then marched to Karr’s home.

During the Lhotak and Woods trials, Dueker remarked that Chassaing had merely argued that because the defendants had been arrested, they must be guilty.

In a press release Thursday, Arch City said that Chassaing’s arguments violated the most fundamental tenet of the country’s legal system: the presumption of innocence.

“Without pro-bono representation, I would have been forced to plead guilty to a crime I didn’t commit,” Rose said in the statement.

Dueker has yet to rule in two other failure-to-comply cases. These resulted from arrests made during a protest on Aug. 14, 2014, and also were tried in April.

Two additional Ferguson failure-to-comply trials are scheduled for next week in St. Louis County.

The city has said it is considering appointing an interim prosecutor while it searches for a new one. On Thursday, City Manager De’Carlon Seewood said that decision has yet to be made.

For the moment, Karr is listed as the lawyer in the upcoming trials, according to the court files.

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Stephen Deere is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Related to this story

Fairly or unfairly, Stephanie E. Karr became the face of the Bad Old Days in Ferguson. The longer she held onto her job as Ferguson's city attorney, the harder it was going to be for the city to put its unfortunate past 21 months behind it. Now that she's gone, the city can start moving forward.

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