Black people have historically equated prosecutors with locking people up, and rightfully so. Prosecutors, district attorneys and circuit attorneys have almost single-handedly contributed to the swell of two million mainly Black people caged in America’s prisons. The handprints of the courts are all over the widening racial disparities of the carceral system.
A 2014 report revealed that of the elected prosecutors, 95 percent were white and nearly 80 percent were white men. The predominantly white, male, conservative top law enforcers play a powerful role in criminal justice with unapologetic and unwavering support for and from police groups. This is an under-estimated fact that has come back to bite us in the butt.
In a post-Ferguson world, Black communities across the country were fed up with corrupt and unjust prosecutors. The paradigm about prosecutors and their roles started to shift. Prosecutors with reform agendas were being elected, changing the color and political landscape of these offices.
St. Louis elected its reform prosecutor in 2016. Attorney Kim Gardner was the first African American to hold the office. And just to let the white power structure know it wasn’t a fluke, she was re-elected in 2020. From the moment she took office, Gardner has caught hell. Attempts to teach her lessons on how to stay in her place as a Black woman have failed.
The latest attack on her office recently ended with a minor reprimand by the Missouri Supreme Court and a $750 court fee. At the heart of the four-year ethics violation case was that Gardner’s personal written notes not be disclosed when the Circuit Attorney’s Office (CAO) took on then-Missouri Republican Governor Eric Greitens in a privacy invasion crime involving his mistress.
After thousands of hours, the review of voluminous pages of legal documents turned up no intentional criminal acts. Taxpayers will be handed an invoice for at least $1 million for lawyers, depositions, investigator and experts. Gardner’s personal defense was about the same amount, but those costs will be absorbed by the pro bono law firm. Gardner’s reputation took some nasty blows, but her public service commitment is unshakable, and her law license remains intact.
Why are Kim Gardner and her fellow colleagues so hated and recipients of non-stop hate mail and death threats? From the inception, Gardner made it clear that she was not interested in maintaining the status quo. Further, that no one was above law - implicitly referring to rogue cops.
Coming out of the gate as the new prosecutor, the Circuit Attorney took on the case of killer cop Jason Stockley. The coward chose a bench trial and was summarily acquitted of the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith by a white judge. Weeks of protests filled the streets of St. Louis.
Gardner’s legal action against Greitens ended his political career, resulting in political retaliation by his circle of powerful Republican buddies. She brought charges against the gun swinging McCloskeys. The white husband and wife attorneys brandished weapons at non-violent protestors as they passed their mansion on a gated street.
Kim Gardner has a growing “exclusion list” of crooked cops who are banned from bringing criminal charges to her office. These cops have proven track records of planting or destroying evidence, filing false police reports and a host of other wicked tricks that often lead to innocent defendants going to jail.
The popular prosecutor was forced to file a lawsuit against the city, St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA) and others using the little-known Ku Klux Klan Act. The 1871 law was intended to stop the violent attacks by the KKK as Black folks fought for their civil and human rights.
Despite being villainized by police associations aided by the mainstream media, reform prosecutors have prodded forward. Most have brazenly refused to prosecute the laws from the GOP agenda from marijuana possession to abortion bans to voting restrictions. They are working their strategy to reduce crime, incarceration and recidivism. They have set up wrongful conviction units, drug courts and diversion programs.
Shortly after the news of the court ruling, Gardner filed a motion to vacate the wrongful conviction of Lamar Johnson, incarcerated for thirty years. There are others waiting in the queue for their freedom based upon the collusion of corrupt cops and previous prosecutors.
A new law driven by the community gives the CAO expanded powers and additional funding for the office. The office will have the staff and the authority to investigate police-involved shootings. There are now resources for families who have lost loved ones to police shootings.
This will not be the last time that Gardner is forced to step into the ring to defend her title. In other cities, the community support for prosecutors is not as organized as it needs to be when it comes to taking on these formidable enemies. A few reformists have lost their re-elections - a reminder that staying connected to the communities one serves and having an objective, political analysis is critical.
Black and Brown communities want transformative changes in prosecutors’ offices. They want an end to the structural racism that inherently seeks convictions at any costs. They want to see a reduction in crime in their neighborhoods, but they want the right person to be convicted and a fair sentence given out.
Our communities have a lot of wants and needs in this arena. This calls for highly organized efforts that consistently educate and engage them to be doggedly strategic in the long-term goals to defund police and to abolish the current criminal justice system.