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Senate hears testimony on appointment of special prosecutor in cities like St. Louis

The Missouri State Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri State Capitol

Less than a week after Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey began efforts to remove St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner from office, a Senate committee heard testimony on legislation widely seen as an attempt to strip power from her.

The bill, which has multiple provisions related to crime, includes a portion allowing the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to address certain violent crimes. It has already passed the House.

Only jurisdictions where the homicide case rate exceeds 35 per 100,000 people would be subject to that portion of the bill. Currently, only St. Louis meets that threshold.

“People think of Missouri as a dangerous place,” said bill sponsor Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin. “A disproportionate number of those homicides occur in the city of St. Louis, but they're applied to our state data, and it makes the entire state look bad.”

The appointment of the special prosecutor would last for a period of up to five years.

That portion of the legislation has received criticism from St. Louis Democrats as an attempt to take control away from Gardner’s office and from the voters who elected her.

“Why are we saying that crime is the responsibility of the prosecutor, wholly, and not the police department, not the state legislature, not all of us holistically?” Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, said.

Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, pushed back on the idea that Gardner isn’t at least partly responsible.

“I'm not saying that there aren’t multiple factors causing crime in the city of St. Louis, but that she is not partly responsible I think lacks credibility,” Luetkemeyer said.

Senators heard hours of testimony from witnesses who included a representative from Gardner’s office.

While Gardner wasn’t there, Redditt Hudson, a diversion specialist with the circuit attorney’s office, said he believes the bill is meant to punish her.

“This bill is an effort in no uncertain terms to disenfranchise voters in St. Louis, and in my personal opinion, to punish an independent Black leader in the city of St. Louis, who has delivered on her promise to address systemic issues in the system, demonstrated by holding powerful people accountable, who have no expectation of being held accountable,” Hudson said.

Witnesses speaking on behalf of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys board were critical of the legislation. Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd called the bill unnecessary and counterproductive.

“People are rightly concerned about what's happening in the city of St. Louis. But Missouri, like the vast majority of other states, has a system of independently elected prosecutors for a reason,” Zahnd said.

Zahnd also pointed out that Missouri already has a system to oust a prosecutor and that the attorney general is using that process now.

Other provisions in the bill

Included in the bill are a multitude of policies related to crime, some of which may see changes as it makes its way in the Senate.

Sen. Steven Roberts, D-St. Louis, brought up a section of the bill that would allow felons who weren’t convicted of a violent crime to still be able to possess a firearm.

According to Roberts, felonies that would not be classified as violent under the statute include stalking and voluntary manslaughter.

“I can understand, you know, situations where it might be a nonviolent felony … but I think that this is a little overbroad,” Roberts said.

One policy that House Democrats failed to add to the bill is a provision that would have barred minors from possessing a firearm without adult supervision on public property.

But Sen. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, spoke to Lane Roberts about a possible amendment that would prohibit minors who have been found to commit what would be a felony under adult law from possessing a firearm.

“I and many others are hoping to thread that needle and fix that issue to give law enforcement the tools to ensure that minors are not walking around with stolen guns that will later be used in crimes,” Schroer said.

Sarah Kellogg is a Missouri Statehouse and Politics Reporter for St. Louis Public Radio and other public radio stations across the state.