Former St. Louis assistant circuit attorney Bliss Barber Worrell leaves the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, after admitting she helped cover up a St. Louis police officer's assault of an arrestee. Photo by Robert Patrick of the Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday suspended the law licenses of two former St. Louis prosecutors for covering up a police beating of a handcuffed suspect in 2014.
In a unanimous opinion, the court suspended Katherine Anne “Katie” Dierdorf and Ambry Schuessler. Dierdorf cannot apply for reinstatement for three years. Schuessler will be suspended for at least two years.
The court’s ruling cited “the severity of Ms. Dierdorf’s misconduct as a result of her dishonesty and instruction of others to conceal information about the incident” and Schuessler’s “repeated dishonesty during and interference with the federal prosecution of the police detective” in their decision.
In an emailed statement, Dierdorf lawyer Michael Downey called the suspension “inconsistent with the facts, its own precedent, and what is appropriate to protect the public and maintain the integrity of the judicial system in this case.”
He said Dierdorf had “promptly and repeatedly attempted to remedy her earlier misstatements but was rebuffed by her supervisors” and that she voluntarily produced thousands of text messages to the FBI.
The incident that started it all was the beating of a handcuffed suspect, Michael Waller, by then-St. Louis police Officer Thomas A. Carroll on July 22, 2014.
Carroll’s daughter’s car had been broken into, and Waller was found with her stolen credit card. Waller said he had found the card.
The next morning, another prosecutor and Carroll’s close friend, Bliss Barber Worrell, told Dierdorf and an intern that Carroll had beaten Waller, the opinion says. Dierdorf did not report the incident to supervisors.
Carroll described the beating to Worrell and Schuessler by speakerphone later that morning, saying he punched and kicked Waller, hit him with a chair and stuck his gun in Waller’s mouth, the opinion says. Schuessler responded with what the court called a “racist and homophobic comment about the suspect’s assault,” bringing laughter from Carroll and Worrell.
Schuessler and another prosecutor, Lauren Collins, learned Waller had been charged with a felony for fleeing custody, and became concerned that he could go to jail for a crime he did not commit, the opinion says. A reluctant Schuessler went with Collins to a supervisor, the opinion says, telling that supervisor that Worrell might have filed false charges.
When called in front of supervisors, Dierdorf withheld some of what she knew about the incident, the opinion says, then told Schuessler, “I told them I don’t know anything. You don’t tell them you know anything either.”
Schuessler failed to tell supervisors that she heard Carroll describe the assault, and failed to tell them that he said he used a gun.
The next day, Schuessler told police internal affairs investigators that she’d only heard Worrell’s half of the July 23 call, failing to tell them that Carroll was on speakerphone.
Dierdorf resigned July 28 rather than face termination. She was interviewed twice by the FBI and a federal prosecutor, Hal Goldsmith. It wasn’t until the second interview that she admitted knowing about the beating on the morning of July 23, describing the incident to others, overhearing a phone call between Worrell and Carroll about the investigation and lying to supervisors about when she learned about the assault.
The court said that prosecutors “are held to a higher standard given the nature of their work to protect the public.” Dierdorf’s conduct undermined the public’s confidence in Missouri prosecutors, and her “repeated dishonesty … shows a pattern of protecting herself and her friends over the duties she assumed when she became an assistant circuit attorney,” the opinion says.
Schuessler initially blamed Carroll for the racist and homophobic joke and said she didn’t hear the speakerphone call, but admitted the truth in a second interview with federal investigators, the opinion says. That hampered the prosecution of Carroll, they said.
Goldsmith believed the joke was relevant because it bolstered prosecutors’ claims that Carroll put his gun in Waller’s mouth during the attack, which carried an enhanced potential prison sentence. Carroll had denied the use of the gun during his criminal case.
“The violation was particularly egregious given the circumstances in which the racist and homophobic comment was made,” they said. Schuessler violated the public trust by failing to report the assault and joking about it.
But she did go with Collins to report the incident and sought counseling, the opinion says.
The opinion rejects a disciplinary hearing board’s recommendation of a reprimand for each and supports the suspension requested by the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, which investigates lawyer misconduct.
The panel, formed to hold a hearing and issue recommendations, dismissed the case against Caroline Anne Rutledge, a former intern. Rutledge’s attorneys and attorneys for the disciplinary counsel agreed with that recommendation. Rutledge was not a lawyer at the time of the incident, and her filings say she did not lie but could have been “forthcoming.” Her lawyer, Maurice Graham, previously told the Post-Dispatch that there was an unprofessional culture in the office.
Rutledge was a lawyer in St. Louis County family court until January, and now works for a nonprofit, a court spokeswoman said. Dierdorf is a public defender in Denver, Colorado. Schuessler had been working for a Clayton law firm.
Waller won a a $300,000 settlement over the incident, but recently died, his lawyer said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Earlier versions of this story contained an incorrect description of the current employer of Caroline Rutledge. This version has been corrected.
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