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Inmates charged with violent crimes in St. Louis and St. Louis County released amid spread of COVID-19
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Inmates charged with violent crimes in St. Louis and St. Louis County released amid spread of COVID-19

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ST. LOUIS — People charged with nonviolent crimes are not the only ones getting out of jail in St. Louis and St. Louis County ahead of the coronavirus.

Among the inmates released without bail from St. Louis County Jail this week was a St. Louis man who had been held for more than three years on charges of first-degree child molestation, according to court information. The father of the victim said a reporter’s call was the first notification he received that his daughter’s alleged abuser had been released. He said he feared for their safety.

And in St. Louis, the Post-Dispatch has confirmed that among the freed defendants are those accused of armed robbery and assault with a weapon.

Officials in St. Louis and St. Louis County courts and jails said earlier this week they were releasing more than 140 inmates. But they have not complied with the newspaper’s requests for information about the underlying cases.

Talk about planned mass releases of inmates has led to some concern that the balance has swung from protecting the public to endangering it.

Joseph Mitchell spent the last three years in the county jail in lieu of posting a $50,000 bond, awaiting trial for first-degree child molestation. The class B felony is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The grand jury indictment accused him of touching the vagina of a girl under 14 over her underwear. The victim’s father told the Post-Dispatch that Mitchell is a relative.

He said the girl was 5 when the abuse occurred in 2015 while he was at work and Mitchell was in their home. The father said he reported the abuse to police after he overheard his wife talking to another family member about it a year later.

On Wednesday, Mitchell, who is in his late 50s, was ordered to be freed without bail by St. Louis County Circuit Judge Kristine Kerr. He is to be monitored using a phone app called RePath to trace his location with a medium level of supervision. And he is prohibited from going near the victim’s home or contacting her or her parents. Mitchell’s next appearance in court will be a July 9 conference to set a trial date.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell’s office objected to the release.

Bell’s chief of staff, Sam Alton, said in a statement: “Our prosecutor attempted to notify the victim’s father of the hearing but were unable to reach him. We objected to the release of the defendant — as shown in the court’s order — and the defendant was released. We respect the decision of the court and will continue to work with the victim and family of the victim to make sure the defendant is held accountable for his crime(s).”

Mitchell could not be reached for comment and his attorney did not return a voice message on Friday.

Under an order from the judge, Mitchell has to use the RePath app, created by Kansas City-based eHawk, which uses GPS and facial recognition software requiring a defendant to check in after getting randomly timed notifications.

The father said Mitchell is a threat to other children and that an app would not protect people from him.

“I really wish he had an ankle bracelet,” the father said. “That would make me feel a lot safer. Because he could just leave that phone and go.”

The father asked a reporter how close Mitchell could come to his house. The judge’s order indicated there would be “geofencing,” but a distance was not spelled out in the release order.

“How can it not tell him a distance?” he asked. “There has to be a distance.”

County Councilman Tim Fitch, a former police chief, questioned the need to release Mitchell. “If you are in jail for three years on a case and the judge hasn’t let you out before that, there is a good reason,” he said.

Fitch said on Friday he was writing a letter to the courts and to Bell asking them to notify the police department that initiated the arrest and the victim of the crime before releasing any defendant. The conditions of the release should be made clear to the victim, he said.

The Post-Dispatch has been unable to access detailed information about the cases for which inmates were being released. The courts, prosecutors, the public defender and jails in the city or county have ignored and refused to release the information.

The county’s justice services director, Raul Banasco, said Thursday that of the 14 people released on Wednesday, 11 had been charged with drug possession and that three of those had been charged with other crimes, including receiving stolen property, unlawful use of a weapon and domestic assault. Of the remaining three cases, the charges included burglary, domestic assault and auto theft.

On Friday, Banasco told County Council members the court had ordered an additional 13 people released, including seven charged with probation violations, one with burglary and stealing, one with burglary, stealing and receiving stolen property, one with stealing and probation violations, one with stealing, one with domestic assault and one with drug possession.

There was no information provided on convictions underlying the seven inmates who were held on probation violations.

“The community deserves to know the answer to these things,” Fitch said.

Stephen Reynolds, St. Louis County's district public defender, said in an email that releasing inmates amid the virus outbreak addresses public health concerns more so than that of inmates. An outbreak within the jail, he said, also endangers jail staff who also risk spreading the virus in the community when they leave work and go home.

"A reduced jail population which only confines defendants with the most serious cases best serves community health during this period," Reynolds said. "It was under these once-in-a-century circumstances that judges and prosecutors made difficult decisions to protect public health."

St. Louis cases

Public defenders in St. Louis are citing the threat of the fast-spreading coronavirus in attempts to free nearly all of their clients confined at the city’s two jails.

Since the outbreak, lawyers have been scrambling to file motions for bail reductions or release in about 190 cases, said Matthew Mahaffey, district defender in St. Louis.

In most cases, defense lawyers have argued their clients face higher risk of exposure to the virus in “ill-equipped” and “crowded” jails. The defense requests have prompted some St. Louis judges to hold conference call-style hearings in chambers this week to hear arguments for and against releasing scores awaiting trial on a wide range of felony charges.

A Post-Dispatch reporter observed three bail review hearings in St. Louis judges’ chambers Thursday and Friday where public defenders and prosecutors argued over various cases including murder, robbery, assault, burglary, gun and drug possession.

In large part, judges detained defendants in violent cases after considering criminal history, the severity of charges and risks to the public. But some defendants facing nonviolent crimes won bail reductions if they were already being held on federal charges.

Lawyers told judges the jails have begun quarantining new inmates for two weeks, holding one inmate per cell at the Medium Security Institution on Hall Street, informally known as the City Workhouse. Lawyers said they were unaware of anyone being exposed at city jails, which have seen a 13 percent population decline since March 1.

“It’s not just their liberty,” said assistant public defender Alexa Hillery in a conference call with a judge Thursday. “It’s their life at risk.”

The series of bail hearings come amid efforts by Mahaffey and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner to thin the ranks at the city jails. They announced Wednesday that they had agreed to seek the release of 56 defendants held on what they described as “low level” offenses, or who suffer underlying health problems.

This week, Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards sent a letter to Gardner cautioning against “the arbitrary release of individuals accused of heinous and violent crimes. The release of certain individuals could create a public safety crisis in our region in that many victims and communities will be caught off guard by their perpetrators’ sudden release.”

Edwards told Gardner the jail has no positive COVID-19 cases, and that he expects her office to oppose the release of “recidivist offenders that routinely inflict serious and violent harm on our communities.”

Mahaffey and Gardner have refused to provide the list to the Post-Dispatch. Some city defendants released in recent weeks include inmates charged with violent crimes including robbery and assault.

On Wednesday, a judge released Mozzio Withers, 26, charged in March 2018 with robbing a woman of her purse at gunpoint in the Central West End. The robbery was captured on surveillance video. Circuit Judge Scott Millikan put Withers on house arrest and ordered him to stay out of the neighborhood.

The victim of that robbery, Melissa Elliott, 64, of St. Louis, told the Post-Dispatch she was notified Tuesday that Withers would be released and is frustrated she didn’t have a chance to object.

“Did I have to get shot for it to be considered a violent crime?” Elliott said. “Is an armed robbery not a big deal anymore? Maybe not.”

When Elliott called the Circuit Attorney’s Office on Friday to talk to a prosecutor about it, the person who answered hung up on her, she said. Now, Elliot said she lives with a mix of frustration and fear.

“The whole system’s screwed up,” she said. “I’ve waited this long, over two years for this thing to come to trial. My rights, I think, were totally violated. What was done here was not done in the interest of the community. It was done in the interest of the inmate.”

“I am afraid,” she said, “but I don’t like to admit that.”

Jim Whyte, executive director of the Central West End Neighborhood Security Initiative, said he thinks releasing inmates now puts added pressure on police and a public already burdened with stress from the outbreak.

“I think it’s reckless,” Whyte said. “I think it puts us all at risk. It’s not going to take long for the criminal element to exploit this situation.”


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