© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

St. Louis public defenders take delays in preliminary hearings to Missouri Supreme Court

The Missouri Supreme Court building on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2024, in Jefferson City, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Supreme Court, shown on Wednesday, is considering a dispute over judges in St. Louis granting delays in felony preliminary hearings.

Public defenders in St. Louis are challenging the length of time it takes for their clients to get hearings on the evidence used to accuse them of a crime.

Missouri law provides two methods that prosecutors can use to charge someone with a crime. They can file a complaint and then hold a preliminary hearing in front of a judge to review the evidence for probable cause, or they can ask a grand jury to issue an indictment. Court rules say the preliminary hearings must be held within 30 days if a person is charged with a felony, but judges can delay them for “good cause.”

Public defenders in the 22nd Circuit say that the circuit attorney routinely requests delays so the case can be presented to the grand jury instead and that judges regularly grant those requests, in what the lawyers call an abuse of good cause. On Thursday, they asked the Missouri Supreme Court to force Associate Circuit Judge Catherine Dierker to stop granting delays and hold the preliminary hearings on time. Dierker was named in the suit effectively as a representative of the associate judges in the circuit.

“Continued prosecution without a finding of probable cause and with no opportunity to challenge the charges at a preliminary hearing as required … violates state law, court rules and the state and U.S. Constitutions,” Assistant Public Defender Brendan Kottenstette wrote in court documents.

Judge Paul Wilson raised the constitutional question on Thursday.

“How long can you use the dual pathway to get the secrecy of the grand jury, and the indefinite detention of somebody who’s not even yet formally arraigned, let alone even proven to be guilty?” he asked Assistant Circuit Attorney Gregory Goodwin, who represented Dierker.

“That is really a case-by-case determination,” Goodwin said.

The man whose name is on the case, Lamar Lamont Woods, has been in the City Justice Center since June on multiple sexual assault and rape charges.

“We’re asking for preliminary hearings to make sure that people like Mr. Woods stop being held for months on end,” Kottenstette said Thursday at oral arguments.

The grand jury eventually indicted Woods, which attorneys for Dierker argued makes the case moot. Goodwin also pointed out that Dierker only took the bench in November and has changed the way preliminary hearings are handled.

“The public defender relies on facts and data that predate the appointment of Circuit Attorney [Gabe] Gore and Dierker,” he wrote in his brief. “As a result, this record requires the Court to guess what Circuit Attorney Gore may do, and to assume that Dierker will refuse to follow the law in the future. These guesses show the danger of advisory opinions.”

The judges will issue a ruling at a later date.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.