Crime Story

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

The Shark -- who sports a 98 percent overall conviction rate and a 70 percent rate in jury trials -- says she met with Holloran after receiving his letter. She shrugs it off and gives him a Casablanca defense -- like Humphrey Bogart musing about the healthful waters of the North African desert, Holloran was misinformed, she says.

"The Holloran letter, it really doesn't mean anything," she says. "I like Jim ... but it's not a big fish in my pond right now."

And whereas some see Joyce as getting caught in the crossfire, the sharpies say the South Side Shark is walking point for Frankie the Saint's assault on crime.

Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce
Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce

"She's not in the middle -- she's right by Slay's side on this one," says one insider. "If he wants her to amp it up, she'll amp it up."

Two weeks after the Holloran blast, Passanante fired off his own letter, resigning his position as a special assistant circuit attorney and criticizing Frankie and the Shark for attacking the judges. A self-described "bit player" in this firefight, Passanante, who briefly appeared in the race Joyce eventually won, says he tried to play peacemaker in this fight, at Joyce's request.

But after meeting with Neill and having a "long and loud telephone conversation with Jim Holloran," Passanante realized that Swiss-style fence-sitting wasn't an option.

"The Court is convinced that the Circuit Attorney is once again attempting to improperly exert control over the sentencing of defendants," Passanante wrote in his May 29 letter to Joyce. "The Mayor's apparent attempt to blame the City's crime problems on the Circuit Court is unfair.... The Mayor may see some political advantages to this now but in the long run, he'll pay a heavy price for such tactics.... Your office is increasingly viewed as disrespectful and antagonistic toward the Court. I cannot be a part of that."

Sandwiched between this two-letter barrage were ongoing negotiations between the court and the mayor's office over a thorny problem contributing to overcrowding at the city workhouse -- the slow processing of parole-violation cases, resulting in a backlog of about 132 prisoners who should have been quickly sent to state prisons instead of being allowed to lounge around on the city's nickel.

There was also a request from the judges that Slay rein in Favazza on a budget request before the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, the latest clash in a long-running war between the circuit-court clerk and the judges. Most of Favazza's workers are state employees and his office got smacked hard in the draconian slicing that accompanied the state budget crisis, a situation exacerbated by the judges' ability to force him to bear the brunt of those cuts -- the elimination of 25 full-time employees.

"The judges found themselves in a two-front war against Mariano on one side and the mayor and the circuit attorney on the other," says one insider.

The ongoing letter war threatened to destroy both instances of back-scratching between City Hall and the judges and undermine Slay's attempts to smooth the feathers of Holloran, Neill and her court. Viewing Passanante's letter as a resumption of judicial hostilities, Slay's chief of staff, Jeff "Crash" Rainford, called up Circuit Court Judge Jack Garvey, a former alderman, and asked him to help broker a peace.

A thankless task for Garvey, say the sharpies, even though everybody appears to be making nice right now. They note that Neill suffers from a classic case of Irish Alzheimer's -- she forgets everything except whom she's pissed at. And the South Side Shark shows no signs of backing down; she's pushing forward with plans to put sentences and prosecutorial recommendations on a Web site slated for an August 6 debut. Unlike Favazza, Joyce's effort is well beyond the reach of the judges.

Listen to the Shark: "It is not my role, necessarily, to work hand in glove with the judges. I'm an advocate and represent the crime victims of this city. People need to understand what's going on in the courts. The system should be accountable to the victims of the crimes.

"The sentences in the city of St. Louis are significantly disparate to the sentences people receive in surrounding jurisdictions for similar crimes and under similar circumstances."

Hmm -- sounds like a sermon. It's got rhythm and catchy phrases, and you can pray to it.

Maybe Frankie ought to surrender his pulpit to the South Side Shark.

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