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‘A Troubling Reality’: Problems At Circuit Attorney’s Office Stall Reform Agenda

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner speaks before the Board of Aldermen's Public Safety Committee on Oct. 3, 2017.
File photo / Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, shown at a 2017 meeting, is facing criticism over the recent dismissal of murder charges filed by her office.

Charges in three different murder cases have been dismissed in St. Louis in the past week — because prosecutors failed to show up in court or weren’t ready to proceed even after months of delays.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch pinned the dismissals on high turnover at the office of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. The office has suffered more than 100% turnover under Gardner, and as a result, writes Joel Currier, it’s gone from dismissing an average of 10% to 15% of felony cases in the years before Gardner’s election to more than 30% in the last three years. Last year, it dismissed 36% of all felony cases, Currier reported.

031821_AaronBanks_matthewmahaffey.JPG St. Louis District Defender Matthew Mahaffey
Provided / Aaron Banks
St. Louis District Defender Matthew Mahaffey

Matthew Mahaffey, the district defender for the St. Louis office of the Missouri State Public Defender, joined Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air to discuss how those dismissals are affecting his office’s clients and attorneys.

While Gardner’s office has assured the public that the charges have been refiled in all three cases, there will be delays for both crime victims and defendants seeking their day in court.

“It starts the process over again,” he said. “And that is a troubling reality for everyone that’s involved with that case, regardless of whether they’re with the prosecutor’s office or our office. For our clients, many times, it means they remain confined, and they have to start again towards what they hope is an opportunity to address the case in the way they have decided they want to address it.”

Mahaffey said that three consecutive missed appearances in court, as detailed in one case in the Post-Dispatch, is unusual. But the circuit attorney’s office using a combination of dismissal and refiling to buy time is not.

And beyond forcing defendants to wait months on end to address the charges they face, those actions also force opposing attorneys into difficult scheduling decisions.

“On our staff, they are trying to prioritize where to give their time and talents with regards to their caseload,” he said. “They are preparing and giving attention to cases they think are going to trial, and then when they do not, they have obviously had to put aside things that now need to take attention, and that they could have maybe given attention to at that time.”

If prosecutors aren’t ready to bring a case, he said, they shouldn’t file one.

Mahaffey previously blamed the circuit attorney’s policies and practices for forcing St. Louis defendants to endure unduly long jail stays. He told St. Louis on the Air in March that the average stay at the City Justice Center had grown to 344 days. A task force looking into conditions at the jail after multiple riots by detainees last winter cited lengthy stays as a factor.

Although Mahaffey publicly called for changes in how prosecutors use the grand jury process, and what he sees as unnecessary delays to getting a day in court, he said the circuit attorney has not changed its practices. New rules from the Missouri Supreme Court also have not made a difference in St. Louis, he said. Prosecutors continue to use the grand jury to circumvent the court’s attempt at reform.

He reiterated that judges need to hold Gardner’s office accountable.

Public Defender's Perspective
Listen to Matthew Mahaffey on "St. Louis on the Air."

“If the state is continuing to file like that, and they’re not going to give our clients their due process rights under the rules,” Mahaffey said, “the associate courts should follow the rules.” He’d like to see more judges follow the lead of St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Jason Sengheiser, who made headlines this week in his dismissal of a murder charge, and dismiss charges when prosecutors don’t follow the rules.

On Tuesday, Gardner declined to be interviewed. She has publicly blamed the problems on difficulties caused by an assistant prosecutor’s maternity leave.

In response to inquiries from St. Louis on the Air, her office issued a statement, which reads: “Upon review of our internal policies and procedures regarding Family Medical Leave, we have determined that corrective measures are needed to further prevent any future repeat occurrence of the incident in question. The suggestion, however, that there have been additional instances that have occurred like the one in question have not been substantiated.

“Be assured that as the Circuit Attorney of the City of St. Louis, I am accountable to the public for the actions of the office and remain committed as ever to upholding the highest possible standards and practices of accountability at all levels of this office, particularly the public safety of the residents of the City of St. Louis. As a result, the individual in this case is in custody.” The office later backtracked and acknowledged that the suspect in the case referred to by Gardner was not, in fact, in custody.

Mahaffey credited Gardner for her attempts to shake up the criminal justice system.

“I think Kim is an advocate for criminal justice reform, and I do respect that,” he said. “But I think there needs to be increased management focus along with those. She’s shown a great willingness to think about positive reforms. I just hope her office can develop some trust with some local agencies, including my own … that would allow for better implementation of those reform ideas.”

Absent managerial changes, achieving her goals of true reform will “be hard,” Mahaffey said.

He suggested it may come down to local judges.

“If the court is holding her accountable under the rules,” he added, “I think some of those reforms will come to be, because it will force her hand into the management and organizational side.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.