PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
A St. Louis police officer observes a downtown protest on November 30, 2015.
St. Louis city spent nearly two years prosecuting a handful of protesters over minor municipal violations. Yet when the day finally came for trial, the city's witnesses — the police officers who handled the case — simply didn't show up.
On May 19, 2015, a late-night protest drew some 40 demonstrators to a residential street in the Holly Hills neighborhood. They chanted, "Wake up Jennifer!" and "No justice, no sleep!" In response, police officers deployed pepper spray
and arrested seven people
The protest was unique. This wasn't a police station or the site of a disputed shooting. This was the home of Jennifer Joyce, then the St. Louis Circuit Attorney, and the crowd of chanting protesters had gathered to express their outrage at Joyce's decision, announced one day earlier, that her office would not prosecute the police officer who fatally shot eighteen-year-old VonDerrit Myers Jr. the previous October.
There had been many protests in St. Louis that year. But the fact that this one took place at the private residence of a city official seemed to up the ante.
Police and prosecutors were not inclined to wrap up the matter with citations. One protester, Elizabeth Vega, was charged with misdemeanor assault of a police officer for allegedly wiping pepper spray on the uniform of St. Louis city police chief Sam Dotson
. Found guilty by a jury, she was sentenced to two years' probation.
The remaining six protesters were originally supposed to face trial last month. They faced a handful of municipal charges, mostly for things like peace disturbance, resisting arrest and trespassing. Only, there was a small problem. The city's key witnesses — the arresting officers — were nowhere to be found.
"We were set to go to trial several weeks ago," says defense attorney Javad Khazaeli, "And at that point, none the police officers showed up. The city stated that this was a communication error."
The trial was rescheduled for May 3, but in the meantime the city dropped charges against one of the protesters, and another decided to plead guilty. That left four defendants who arrived at St. Louis city municipal court on Wednesday.
This time, the city fielded a slightly more complete case. One police officer was in attendance. However, his testimony concerned only one defendant, Antoine White, and only on a single charge: interfering with a peace officer.
The judge dropped the charges against the other three defendants, citing a "failure to prosecute." And even the case against White fizzled in court.
"The officer testified that he didn’t recall how it occurred, but claimed that my client has repeatedly interfered with police officers," says Khazaeli.
Under cross-examination, Khazaeli says, the cop wilted.
"He couldn’t remember any of the details," Khazaeli says. "We produced a witness who both saw the event and videotaped the event. It showed our client did nothing and was immediately tackled and thrown to the ground."
Not surprisingly in light of that, the judge found White not guilty.
Khazaeli says that the cops' persistent absences came as a surprise. The city counselor's office claimed to have made "every effort" to assemble the arresting officers.
"It has been our theory," says Khazaeli, "that the video evidence in this case shows officers overreact and start to pepper spray people who did nothing wrong. These charges were in a way for the officers to justify their actions."
Reached by email on Friday, the spokesman for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, Koran Addo, indicated that news of the protesters' botched trial came as a surprise. "The Police Department has been made aware of this issue and is checking to determine what happened," Addo said.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]