Crime Story

Ghost letter from a powerbroker teaches Slay the perils of using the bully pulpit

Enough background. Back to how all of this blew up into a major pissing match.

On March 19, Frankie wrote a letter to Joyce, expressing concern about "a regular occurrence for people convicted of armed robbery to be sentenced to probation, serving no jail time." He asked Joyce to forward him the number of people who were convicted of or pleaded guilty to armed robbery but got probation.

The sharpies say this letter was a bit disingenuous, given that he was already talking to Joyce in those skull sessions on crime and she was already telling him the numbers -- a five-year summary of probation granted in 134 of 681 cases of robbery in the first degree and attempted robbery in the first degree, which is the term of art for a robber wielding a firearm. That's a one-in-five ratio, kids.

Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce
Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce

Regardless, this public document should have been a red flag to the judges that the mayor was eyeing them as fodder for a bully-pulpit sermon on crime, straight from that Old Testament favorite, the Book of Giuliani.

It wasn't.

The shit didn't hit the fan until an early-May story on armed-robbery probations aired by KSDK (Channel 5) pit-bull reporter Mike Owens, famous for his marriage to Alderwoman Lyda Krewson (D-28th Ward) and his ultratight connections to City Hall.

Make no mistake -- Owens chased a story any reporter would track down. And he appears to have used due diligence, double-checking his numbers with Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza and University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Scott Decker.

But Neill and her colleagues hit the roof, seeing the story as the first torpedo fired at their waterline by City Hall. They saw Owens as an electronic U-boat, following orders from Room 200, ignoring the substance and legitimacy of his report.

They also heard strong rumors that the mayor was about to launch a major crime initiative by blasting them for soft sentences and establishing a court-watch program that would track sentencing patterns and put that information into the hands of everyday folk.

Favazza and Joyce are more or less walking the same pathway with their projects to put public trial records up on the Web so that people can check on crime in their neighborhoods and how cases are handled by the courts -- rank heresy in the minds of several judges, who think it's none of the public's damn business what public servants do on the public dime.

"Change scares people," says Joyce. "My concern is with the sentencing patterns in the city and what one judge refers to as a 'culture of leniency.' I've definitely brought those concerns to the mayor."

Whatever one thinks of Frankie, Favazza, Joyce and their political motivations, any attempt to put public records where the public can get them deserves loud and sustained applause.

Truth-telling is a rare commodity in St. Louis, and even a baby step in this direction is welcome -- something Rhode and his City Hall betters might remember the next time they give the moral equivalent to the "dog ate my homework" excuse on the Speedloader's request for a public record, a letter from a political honcho such as Jim Holloran.

Joyce might also give serious thought to her own hypocrisy. While making big noise about the public's right to know what's going on in the courts their tax dollars pay for, she's stonewalling the Speedloader on the Holloran letter and other public documents. At least she's bothered to gin up some clever, if hollow, legal arguments, passing the buck to Attorney General Jay Nixon for a ruling -- far better than City Hall's apparent panic run to the shredder.

Of course, none of this sordid nobility was on the judicial radar screen when the Owens story hit. The judges saw it strictly in a political light and marshaled their forces to fire back, early and often.

"As presiding judge, it's part of my role when I hear unfair criticism of the judiciary to talk to lawyers in town," Neill says. "There were rumors going around that there was going to be an attack on the judges' being soft on crime, a concerted effort from the executive branch."

By "executive branch," Neill means Frankie the Saint and the South Side Shark herself, Jennifer Joyce. In the wake of the Owens story, Neill says, she learned that Joyce had sent similar information to the mayor's office and learned of the ongoing strategy sessions on crime being attended by Mokwa, Joyce, Slay and the mayor's point man on this issue, Ribbing.

Neill says statistics are misleading and don't account for the mitigating circumstances surrounding each case a judge faces. She also notes that judges are hogtied, barred by law from talking about their work. To get someone to do what the judges could not, she talked to Holloran and about twenty other luminaries of the state and local bars but claims she didn't ask anyone to write anything.

Didn't have to. Within a week, Holloran fired off his fiery letter -- just a few days after attorney Paul Passanante says he introduced Holloran to Joyce at the backbar of McGurk's during a fundraiser.

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