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Kim Gardner's exit leaves others to repair a St. Louis criminal court system in shambles

The flag of the state of Missouri flies near a sculpture of justice on the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Kim Gardner will leave office June 1, but repairing the criminal legal system in St. Louis could take months.

The number of prosecutors currently working for St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner is in flux.

Most reports indicate there are fewer than 10 assistant circuit attorneys handling serious criminal cases in the city. One prosecutor who left recently, Christopher Desiltes, had a caseload of more than 100 when he resigned. His inability to be in two courtrooms at once led a judge to move to hold him and Gardner in criminal contempt.

Regardless of what’s causing it, the staffing crisis in the office has continued serious implications across the criminal justice system. Here’s what some with direct experience working in the system have to say as Gardner prepares to leave office on June 1:

The prosecutors

Former Assistant Circuit Attorney Patrick Hamacher had no intention of leaving the prosecutor’s office when Gardner took over in 2017, even though he had been hired by her predecessor.

“It was a dream job. I loved being a prosecutor, every minute,” said Hamacher, who now handles personal injury cases with the firm Niemeyer, Grebel and Kruse. “I believe myself and many of my former colleagues were excited about having a new circuit attorney and generally believed in the progressive prosecution philosophy.”

Hamacher was handling violent crimes like homicides and robberies – complex matters that require a lot of time and effort. And he says during the year he worked under Gardner, his caseload more than doubled, from five homicides and 15 to 20 other violent felonies to at least 15 homicide cases and 40 to 50 other violent felonies when he left in early 2018.

“It’s just a numbers game at that point,” he said. “There’s a lot of legal and ethical duties that you have to both victims, families and witnesses in these types of cases. And that caseload is almost impossible to handle.”

He said he cannot fathom having more than double that number to handle, as Desilets did when he resigned.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, center, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, during a press conference regarding calls for her resignation at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, center, looks on as staffer Redditt Hudson scolds the media on Feb. 23 during a press conference regarding calls for her resignation at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Gardner made no mention of crippling caseloads in her statement announcing her resignation, which came as the Missouri attorney general was trying to oust her. Instead she talked about “an onslaught of public records requests that no office in the country could reasonably fulfill, along with attacks on our hard-working line attorneys designed to demoralize these public servants.” But others have taken notice.

In his petition to remove Gardner from office, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey cited “unmanageable workloads” as an example of the circuit attorney knowingly neglecting her duties.

Bailey wrote of an assistant circuit attorney who “has had three medical events, including two seizures in court,” and whose “medical events were exacerbated by stress resulting from the cases assigned to him.”

And in ordering Gardner and Desilets, her former assistant, to face criminal contempt charges, Circuit Judge Michael Noble wrote that Gardner had failed to help her staff manage caseloads that lead to conflicts and stress.

“Any prudent practitioner would expect such a caseload to create countless irreconcilable conflicts,” the judge said. “It appears that Ms. Gardner has a complete indifference to, and a conscious disregard of, the judicial process.”

The public defenders

Mary Fox, the head of the Missouri State Public Defender's Office, poses for a portrait on Feb. 11, 2020.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Before she was named the Missouri state public defender in 2020, Mary Fox, shown shortly after her appointment, spent nearly 15 years in courtrooms in St. Louis as the head of that office. "For the city of St. Louis, and the circuit attorney's office, this is the lowest number that I have ever seen in that office," she says.

Before she was appointed the Missouri state public defender in 2020, Mary Fox spent nearly 15 years in and out of courtrooms in St. Louis as the head of the office’s St. Louis district. So she is extremely familiar with the ebbs and flows of staffing in the circuit attorney’s office.

“For the city of St. Louis, and the circuit attorney's office, this is the lowest number that I have ever seen in that office,” she says of the current headcount of prosecutors handling cases in one of the busiest circuit courts in the state.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a backlog that most courts across the country are struggling to clear, Fox said, but the “limited number of prosecutors” make it harder to do so in St. Louis.

“The case just stalls, it just sits,” she said. “What happens to a member of our community, when they are incarcerated, they lose contact with their family, they lose contact with their employment, they lose contact with their community, and they don't add anything positive to the community.”

The results of those delays could also be seen in uprisings at the City Justice Center downtown, Fox said.

The comments about overwhelming caseloads make Fox both “smile and frown” – they’ve always been a complaint of public defenders. (In 2016, Fox’s predecessor as state public defender, Michael Barrett, appointedthen-Gov. Jay Nixon as the attorney on a criminal case to make his point. The Missouri Supreme Court eventually ruled Barrett could not assign Nixon.)

“Yeah, I was having flashbacks,” she said. “And I was happy to see that people are concerned about this. But I want to make certain that that concern goes to both sides.”

The judges

St. Louis judge calls Circuit Attorney’s Office “a rudderless ship of chaos.”
Robert Cohen
Pool Photo
Judge Michael Noble calls the circuit attorney’s office “a rudderless ship of chaos” on April 27 as he holds a contempt of court hearing against St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

In a statement on the day Gardner announced her resignation, the judges of the 22nd Circuit said they remained committed to serving the city and stood ready to work with the next circuit attorney, who they hoped could “restore stability” to the office.

“However, the judges of the 22nd Judicial Circuit remain deeply concerned about the high volume of serious criminal cases scheduled for trial in the coming weeks without assigned prosecutors,” the statement continued. A spokesman said they would not be available for further comment.

On a recent morning, the balancing act judges have to strike between the rights of defendants and the perceived risk to public safety was apparent.

Sturgeon Stewart, 51, was set to go on trial for 12 felony counts related to a 2020 home invasion that left two people dead. He has been in jail since he was arrested in August of that year, and prosecutors had already dropped and refiled the case once because they could not get DNA results back from the lab in time.

The May 9 date was also a delay – Circuit Judge Rex Burlison granted a continuance on April 24 because the primary investigating witness was on leave from the St. Louis police department.

Then the prosecutor assigned to the case, Desilets, resigned May 1, and a special prosecutor, Rufus Tate, had yet to officially take over. A member of Gardner’s staff who appeared on behalf of the circuit attorney’s office asked for another continuance because the state was not ready to proceed.

Stewart’s attorney, Adofo Minka, told Burlison that he was prepared to go to trial and that the judge should dismiss for failure to prosecute.

Burlison said the police account of the crime, along with forensic, video and ballistic evidence, meant he was “not of the mind” to dismiss the case and release Stewart. But he made it clear that prosecutors had to be ready to go to trial the week of May 22.

“These cases have to move,” he said.

Fox, the state public defender, wishes the judges would dismiss more cases.

“We may say we're protecting the community from dangerous folks,” she said. “But we don't know whether or not that person is guilty until there's either been a finding of guilt or a plea of guilty. And we're locking people up for years without that finding.”

The victim advocates

Katie Dalton still finds the criminal legal system confusing, even after 10 years as the CEO of the Crime Victim Center. And she knows it’s even more confusing for people who have been forced to interact with the system due to an act of violence.

“Court delays are always something that happens,” she said. “It takes years for people to get prosecuted. But I think there's been just extreme delays even further past that in the last couple of years.”

Some of the delays can be explained by COVID-related shutdowns, Dalton said. But lately, the frequent turnover of prosecutors on a case means each new one needs time to review the file and be ready to move forward. That often leads to multiple requests for delays.

“I think there are people that are absolutely frustrated with the system and, and are wanting to kind of give up on it,” Dalton said. “But with the transition, I’m trying to tell them to maybe have a little bit more hope, because we’re going to get some new people looking at that office who hopefully will get some cases to fruition.”

The police

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department squad cars sit at central patrol on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department squad cars sit at Central Patrol in October 2021 in St. Louis.

The start of any criminal case in the 22nd Circuit is an investigation by St. Louis police. But after the initial arrest, the case can only move forward with the help of the circuit attorney.

Before COVID, police would apply for charges at the office in person. The pandemic shifted that to an email inbox. But as the rest of the court system began to open up, applications for warrants stayed virtual.

“I think at some point, it shifted from not being COVID anymore to just being that they don't have the personnel to handle the case volume,” said Jay Schroeder, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

According to Schroeder, there are around 4,000 cases in a status known as “pending application of warrants.” That means police have identified a suspect and made that initial arrest but are still waiting for charges to be officially filed. Sometimes, depending on the severity of the crime, individuals are released in the interim.

“They just get emboldened,” Schroeder said. “They're like: ‘Well, I'll just get arrested, I'll be out in a few hours, and then I'll go back to doing whatever I do.’ And it's made the victims and the city feel helpless.”

Gardner and the police have been at odds since she was first elected in 2017. She sued the union in 2020, alleging a racist conspiracy against her agenda. The suit was later dismissed. And according to an audio recording of a staff meeting on the day she resigned provided to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she blamed some of the delays on the police.

“I know we don't get things on time from law enforcement,” she said.

The reformers

Andrea Hall, 54, of north St. Louis, rallies against the trend of judges and Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office lack of using bail in the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court on Monday, April 24, 2023, outside of the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Andrea Hall, 54, of north St. Louis, rallies against the trend of judges and Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office lack of using bail in the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court on April 24 outside the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Gardner twice won the post of circuit attorney on pledges of reform in the criminal legal system, promising an increased focus on diversion programs and new systems to hold police officers accountable.

“Under my leadership, this office has made tremendous strides in redefining public safety,” she wrote in her resignation announcement. “We have achieved so many important victories together.”

But even before the current staffing crisis, those who on the surface shared Gardner’s goals of reducing the harm of the criminal legal system were raising questions. A 2022 report from the Freedom Community Center found her office requested that someone be held in jail without bail in 88% of the more than 1,500 detention hearings they watched.

The problem, they said, got worse after a February 2023 car crash, which resulted in a teen losing her legs, set off the current spiral.

The lack of bail, and the delays caused by staffing shortages, means more people are spending more time in “atrocious conditions” at the downtown jail known as the Criminal Justice Center, said Amy Breihan, the director of the Missouri office of the MacArthur Justice Center, a nonprofit legal firm.

“It means that they might be or feel pressured to take a plea deal that they otherwise wouldn't take, in order to just get transferred out of the jail,” she added.

Reformers are always aware that a “prosecutor is a cop,” Breihan said, and therefore had realistic expectations of what Gardner could do. But they are also left to wonder whether Gardner’s tumultuous last months in office will make it harder to convince people of the need to reform the criminal legal system.

“I think the direct answer is possibly, but I certainly hope not,” Breihan said. “One thing that it certainly highlights is the tremendous amount of power that a prosecuting attorney has over who to charge and when, for what, and over the incarceration of people in our community.”

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