Last weekend in St. Louis, three children were murdered. More than a dozen children, from toddlers to teenagers, have been murdered in the past four months. While each murder involves different circumstances, what all have in common is that nobody is talking. The toll of dead children keeps rising, but no one will break the code of silence—not because it’s the right thing to do, not for a reward, and not for a prosecutor who claimed people would talk once she was in office.
During St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s campaign, she claimed she would “build trust,” resulting in more witness cooperation. Gardner criticized special programs to protect witnesses and said things would be different, simply because she was circuit attorney. Unfortunately, Gardner’s tactics make witnesses less likely to come forward, as they have little trust that justice will be served if they do.
Look no further than the plea deal days before 8-year-old Jurnee Thompson’s murder. Last April, Scotty Joseph Lee got into an argument at Ballpark Village. He left, returned with a gun, and fired two shots, killing Corey Hall, an innocent bystander. Court records indicate Lee confessed to a witness that he shot twice at the people with whom he had argued. Lee was charged with first degree murder.
In Missouri, first degree murder requires deliberation, but not “premeditation,” or a plan. Missouri law also says that if you intend to shoot one person but kill another, you are responsible for the same level of murder; you don’t get a benefit because you killed the wrong person.
Despite the time Lee had to deliberate in the time it took him to retrieve his gun and pull the trigger twice, Gardner reduced the charges and agreed to a four-year prison sentence. With credit for the time he was confined pending trial and parole eligibility, Lee will be released in less than two years. What did the witness who came forward learn about what justice is to Gardner?
Unfortunately, Gardner can’t offer a better outcome at trial. Her office’s current trial conviction rate hovers around 20%. For perspective, under her predecessor, the trial conviction rate was over 80%. To be clear, these are cases Gardner took to trial because she believed that offered the best outcome. Meaning, even when Gardner’s office takes a case seriously enough to go to trial, they lose 80% of the time, and those charged with murder, violent assaults and rapes go free.
This can be blamed, in part, on turnover. When Gardner took office there were 59 assistant circuit attorneys. Only 12 of those original attorneys are still employed at the circuit attorney’s office. Taking into account Gardner’s own hires who have left the office, the attorney turnover rate is about 110%. How can victims and witnesses trust Gardner’s office when they don’t know who is prosecuting their case on any given day?
Gardner’s attempt at diversion has also been less than robust. In the previous administration’s first year of diversion programming, authorities screened almost 400 candidates. In Gardner’s first two years, screenings dropped by a third. Admittedly, during her self-congratulatory tour this violent summer (amidst her investigator’s indictment), she promised this year those numbers would increase tenfold.
Gardner received significant funding for diversion, but, other than a slick ad, Gardner has offered little substantive information about her programs. For a candidate whose campaign centered around diversion programs, where has she been the last two years? One can’t help but wonder: If diversion was more than a campaign sound bite, would there be at least one less family burying their child?
In my 15 years as a prosecutor I spent a lot of time talking with reluctant witnesses. All expressed the same fear: What if I testify, risk my life, and it’s all for nothing? A prosecutor can never promise an outcome, but I could offer resources, relocation assistance for genuine threats, and discuss successes when witnesses were willing to testify. No matter what, I would promise to fight for justice.
Gardner, on the other hand, demands money to pay legal fees, instead of increasing funds for witness protection programs. Gardner claimed witness relocation assistance is tantamount to paying a witness for their testimony. Instead of using social media to plead for community assistance, Gardner is using the circuit attorney’s Twitter account to personally attack those who ask legitimate questions. Gardner hands out plea deals resulting in little more than a slap on the wrist.
Given all of that, it’s hard for any witness to see that it’s worth it. Those dead kids deserve more and deserve better. Those dead kids deserve a justice that Kim Gardner can’t give them.
Mary Pat Carl, a former candidate for circuit attorney, is a partner at Husch Blackwell, LLP in Government Compliance, Investigations and Litigation.