Two St. Louis ex-prosecutors who knew about a police officer’s brutal abuse of a handcuffed detainee and helped cover it up got their comeuppance Tuesday at the hands of the Missouri Supreme Court. Former prosecutors Katherine Anne Dierdorf and Ambry Schuessler have had their law licenses suspended, which means they cannot work as lawyers in the state after violating the fundamental tenets of their profession.
The indefinite suspensions allow them to apply for reinstatement — Schuessler after two years and Dierdorf after three — but there’s no guarantee that they’ll ever be allowed to argue a case in a Missouri court again. The state’s highest court doesn’t impose such penalties lightly, which underscores the seriousness of their offenses.
Schuessler and Dierdorf were serving as assistant St. Louis circuit attorneys in 2014 when police Detective Thomas A. Carroll called the prosecutors’ office to say his daughter’s car had been broken into and her credit card stolen. A suspect, Michael Waller, was caught with the credit card later that night and arrested. Dierdorf became aware hours later that Carroll had beaten the suspect while he was handcuffed.
On a speakerphone, Carroll recounted for Schuessler and another assistant circuit attorney, Bliss Barber Worrell, having punched the suspect in the face, kicked him, hit him in the back with a chair and stuck a gun in his mouth. Schuessler later offered a racist, homophobic joke about the abuse.
Neither prosecutor immediately reported it to their supervisors. Worrell compounded the injustice by filing a felony charge of fleeing custody against the suspect, which both Dierdorf and Schuessler knew to be false. They concealed what they knew.
Carroll was convicted in federal court and now is serving a 52-month prison sentence. Worrell was disbarred and sentenced to 18 months’ probation.
What occurred wasn’t just a massive civil rights violation but also a massive failure of a system of checks and balances designed specifically to ensure that such abuses don’t occur. Instead, they served to enable and encourage injustice. The only reason Schuessler received a shorter term before she can apply for reinstatement is that she belatedly helped expose what had occurred.
Far too many times in St. Louis, officers have abused their authority by administering their own forms of punishment, as if their suspects had no presumption of innocence and no right to trial. The pattern is disturbing, having not just occurred in 2014 but also in 2017 during protests after the not-guilty verdict in Officer Jason Stockley’s murder trial.
The Supreme Court’s decision might help heal still-open wounds and restore some of the public’s lost faith in those sworn to enforce and uphold the law. The vast majority of officers and prosecutors have worked hard to earn the public’s trust. These punishments should remind them how fragile and easily broken that trust can be.