Prosecutor In St. Louis Sues City, Police Union Over Racist Conspiracy
NOEL KING, HOST:
In St. Louis, a lawsuit has revealed divisions among officials over race, policing and the court system. In that suit, the city's top prosecutor is alleging that there's a racist conspiracy against her. NPR's Leila Fadel brought us this story. And a quick note - there is some offensive language here.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: St. Louis circuit prosecutor Kim Gardner won by a landslide in 2016. She promised to work toward ending mass incarceration and to treat crime as a public health crisis. Well, more than three years into her term, every time she tries to change things, she says she's blocked.
KIM GARDNER: The powerful few is stopping reforms that we know can make our city safe, we know can address the racial disparities and the lack of trust with the criminal justice system.
FADEL: She's accusing, among others, the police union, the city and the special prosecutor of a conspiracy to deny the civil rights of racial minorities by trying to oust the first black prosecutor elected in St. Louis.
GARDNER: What was one of the last straws was Lamar Johnson.
FADEL: Johnson's a black man who was convicted of murder. Twenty-five years later, Gardner's office says they found overwhelming evidence that he's innocent, that a detective made up witness statements, that the prosecutors paid the sole witness, who has since recanted. But Gardner can't get a new trial. The attorney general argues it would violate state law. So the legal battle is headed to the state Supreme Court.
GARDNER: When a prosecutor says that there's manifest injustice and we file a motion for new trial, most jurisdictions, even in the state of Missouri, would work together to find some mechanism to correct their wrongful conviction.
FADEL: But the city, named in the lawsuit, says there's no collusion to oust Gardner. Mayor Lyda Krewson, like Gardner, is a Democrat. She says she wants her to succeed.
LYDA KREWSON: We know, I know the history of race in this city, in this country. And we all have to work against that. But there just has not been a conspiracy.
FADEL: Race has a long and difficult history in policing and prosecution here. Black drivers are 91% more likely to be stopped by police in Missouri than white drivers. Black people are overrepresented in the prison population and underrepresented on police forces. The city has had to pay out nearly $3 million as a result of racial discrimination lawsuits since 2014. The head of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, Jeff Roorda, is named in Gardner's suit as a co-conspirator.
JEFF ROORDA: I think that the whole thing was a grand distraction and was the last act of a desperate woman.
FADEL: He says Kim Gardner's worried about an investigation that's getting closer to her door. When Gardner took office, she charged the Republican governor, Eric Greitens, over allegations of sexual misconduct and blackmail. It was dismissed in a deal that included his resignation. But now Gardner's in the hot seat. The investigator she chose to look into the case has been indicted on charges of perjury and tampering with evidence. Gardner's office was raided, and she's being deposed. Again, Roorda.
ROORDA: There's been a lot of ballyhoo about the fact that Kim's the first African American female prosecutor in St. Louis. But, I mean, we're not critical of her because she's the first. We're critical of her because she's the worst.
FADEL: The worst, Roorda says, because he views her criminal justice reforms as amnesty. And he blames her for higher homicide rates. But Roorda is a controversial figure himself. He has said Gardner needs to be removed from office by force or by choice - many accusing him of inviting violence against her. On the fifth anniversary of Michael Brown's death - that's the black, unarmed teen whose killing led to the Ferguson protests - Roorda posted online, happy alive day, Darren, for the white officer who shot Brown.
HEATHER TAYLOR: There is a culture of discrimination and racism and other biases in our police department.
FADEL: That's Sergeant Heather Taylor, the president of the Ethical Society of Police. And she says Roorda is part of that culture. Her organization represents mostly black officers and was founded in the '70s to combat discrimination. She says they don't agree with everything Gardner does, but her members are disappointed in the city's response to the suit.
TAYLOR: To say that there is no merit in her talking about racism and being targeted by the St. Louis Police Officers Association - that's a slap in our face, and they know it. They know that we were established because of racial discrimination.
FADEL: Taylor says there's no question there's racism. But the lawsuit will have to prove conspiracy. The same investigation that critics point to as an example of Gardner's failures is at the center of Gardner's case. Her lawsuit alleges the investigation is a colluded effort to unseat her despite her mandate from voters. The suit calls the appointment of a special prosecutor to dig into the handling of the former governor's case unprecedented and calls the prosecutor ethically compromised. It also claims the entire investigation is a mechanism to, quote, "thwart and impede her efforts to establish equal treatment under law." Black progressive female prosecutors backed her in a St. Louis rally, women who've themselves been described as controversial, like Marilyn Mosby, the state's attorney for Baltimore.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARILYN MOSBY: We've lived through the personal, professional, ethical attacks on our competency and our leadership abilities and are, in many cases, still living through these attacks. And yet we are here to tell Kim and everyone else we shall not only overcome - but collectively, we shall prevail. We shall prevail in reforming the criminal justice system.
GARDNER: After the rally, Mosby got a voicemail she posted online. She wrote, this is why I stand with Kim.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's only one thing worse than a fat-a** empowered black woman. That's a fat-a** empowered black woman who's got public reins in her hands. If we'd known you all were going to be this much trouble, we would've picked our own [expletive] cotton.
RASHAWN RAY: And so when it comes to what's happening in St. Louis, what we're seeing is certain people aiming to double down on aiming to maintain power and control.
FADEL: That's Rashawn Ray of the Brookings Institution. His research focuses on racial and social inequality and its intersection with gender.
RAY: As of 2015, just 1% of prosecutors in the United States were minority women. And 3 in 5 states have no black elected prosecutors.
FADEL: Back in Gardner's office, the prosecutor is being debriefed on possible candidates for her court diversion program.
GARDNER: So she had no prior...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No priors.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No mentions in previous police reports as a suspect.
FADEL: It's part of her push for rehabilitation rather than incarceration and what she says is an example of what's angering her opponents.
GARDNER: The people told me they elected me to fight. They told me they wanted me to reform the system. They wanted me to address the trauma and the root causes of addressing the criminal justice system as a public health crisis.
FADEL: She says that's what she was elected to do.
Leila Fadel, NPR News, St. Louis.
(SOUNDBITE OF BENEVENTO/RUSSO DUO'S "SUNNY'S SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.