St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner attends her disciplinary hearing at the St. Louis County Courthouse on April 11, 2022 (Pool photo via T.L. Witt).
A pair of veteran prosecuting attorneys panned legislation targeting the authority of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner Monday, with one calling the bill “unnecessary and counterproductive.”
Instead, Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd said, lawmakers should let the courts deal with the question of Gardner’s competence now that a lawsuit intended to remove her from office has been filed.
Zahnd, joined by St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar, testified against a House-passed bill that would allow a governor to appoint a special prosecutor in any county where statistics show high crime rates or where there are 35 or more homicides per 100,000 in a 12-month period.
The bill initially was written only to allow the special prosecutor in St. Louis. But constitutional issues led the sponsor, Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, to make its impact statewide. The special prosecutor would supplant the elected prosecutor in murder, assault, armed robbery and vehicle hijacking cases.
The process initiated last week by Attorney General Andrew Bailey to remove Gardner through a quo warranto petition is faster and more focused than legislation, Zahnd said. The special prosecutor envisioned the bill could not be appointed before late August and it would be several more months before the office would be staffed and ready to take over prosecutions, he said.
“That doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense when (the law) provides a mechanism to immediately remove a local prosecutor,” Zahnd said.
The Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which heard the bill, did not vote on the proposal.
The case against Gardner, filed Friday, is moving quickly. It alleges that Janae Edmonson, a Tennessee teen, was severely injured by a car driven by an accused robber out on bond as a “direct result of years of willful neglect” of Gardner’s duties.
On Monday, Judge John Torbitzky of the Eastern District Court of Appeals gave Gardner 14 days to answer Bailey’s petition.
Gardner is the first Black woman elected to be the circuit attorney for St. Louis, winning a second term in 2020 with 74% of the vote. During Monday’s hearing, Black lawmakers from St. Louis called Roberts’ legislation a racist attempt to reimpose white rule in the city.
“This is exactly what I see, more Jim Crow laws,” said Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis.
Roberts said he has no racial motivation for his bill. Violent crime in St. Louis is among the highest for major cities in the country and it is hurting the state’s economy and national image, he said.
“When you get outside of our borders, people think of Missouri as a dangerous place,” Roberts said.
Along with granting a governor the power to appoint special prosecutors, the bill would also set new standards for what judges must consider when setting bail, including whether the accused is a threat to the community or has a history of violent crime. The bill would also modify the law barring anyone convicted of a felony from owning or possessing a firearm to be a restriction only in the cases of specific dangerous felonies.
During the hearing, however, attention was focused on the bill’s impact on Gardner and whether crime in St. Louis has increased because, or in spite of, the way she runs her office.
“Why are we saying crime is the responsibility of the prosecutor, solely, and not the police department and not the legislature?” May asked Roberts. “Are you aware that homicides have spiked in St. Louis since 2016, when we passed the stand your ground law?”
That bill eliminated the requirement that anyone carrying a concealed handgun obtain a permit. A study last year found homicides increased dramatically in Missouri in the years after that law was passed.
Roberts, however, said the problem of increased violence is not only due to looser gun laws.
“There is other data that says it is more than that,” he said.
One of the tensest moments of the hearing came when Redditt Hudson, a former St. Louis police officer working on diversion and alternative sentencing in Gardner’s office, repeated accusations that the bill is a racist attack.
“The fatal flaw in this legislation is that it disenfranchises voters in St. Louis,” Hudson said. “It is intended to punish a Black leader who has delivered on her promises to address systemic problems in St. Louis.”
Committee Chairman Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, demanded to know why Gardner did not appear.
“This is a law addressing her systemic failures in the city of St. Louis,” Luetkemeyer said.
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