In Circuit Attorney Race, Four Candidates Vie for St. Louis' Toughest Job

Jul 13, 2016 at 6:00 am
Candidates make their pitch at a recent debate.
Candidates make their pitch at a recent debate. PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI

On June 18, the candidates for St. Louis circuit attorney gathered for a debate unlike any in the city's long history. Held before a crowd of 270 in a sun-lit conference room on the campus of Saint Louis University, the session had been organized by Black Lives Matter protesters and local social justice organizations. A key moderator, Kayla Reed, had confronted police in Ferguson and St. Louis. Like others in the audience, she knew what it was like to be arrested for protesting.

It says something about the mood of the electorate in St. Louis these days that all four candidates vying to become the city's top prosecutor didn't just show up for the debate — they earnestly made their case for reform to the office's harshest critics. Two veteran prosecutors, a retired police officer and a state representative all participated for nearly two hours, answering question after question about public accountability, mass incarceration and eliminating racial bias in the criminal justice system. Not one of them ever suggested that the organizers' concerns were overblown, or that they lacked authority to challenge law enforcement.

That response came from outside the room.

Jennifer Joyce, who for sixteen years has served as the city's circuit attorney, the woman the four candidates were seeking to replace, wasn't at the debate — but she was, apparently, closely following while St. Louis Public Radio's Rachel Lippmann live-tweeted the action.

"Odd that @RE_invent_ED is moderating a Circuit Attorney debate when she's made it clear she wants to blow up the system. Seems unbalanced," Joyce tweeted an hour into the event, using Reed's user name.

Joyce took some shots at the candidates, too, but returned several times to decry the bias she saw in the debate's setup.

"This is completely false," she tweeted an hour later, responding to a moderator's suggestion that success in the Circuit Attorney's Office is judged by conviction rate. "We've never measured success on convictions. This is where we need balance on the panel."

Those actually attending the debate took umbrage at the prosecutor's sideline commentary. One audience member, Rasheen Aldridge, diagnosed Joyce's petty outrage as an afternoon case of tweeting-under-the-influence.

"When the city of St. Louis prosecutor is at home on the couch sipping something and just mad for no reason," Aldridge tweeted at Joyce, adding three crying-with-laughter emojis.

Others in the crowd piled on. "You as the CA in this town must be alot like like [sic] being a weather forecaster," tweeted Kennard Williams, a protester and local activist. "Be wrong all the time, but still have a job."

Later, Joyce would apologize, saying she had been out of line (and, for the record, hadn't been drinking — she is a teetotaler). But the moment stood as a stark reminder of what's at stake in August.

In St. Louis' criminal justice system, all roads lead to the desk of the circuit attorney. The job of the city's top prosecutor is grueling and frequently thankless, a lightning rod for criticism even in the best of times. The office comes with the power to not only charge suspects with misdemeanors and felonies, but to set policies that change lives in both communities and courtrooms.

Yet once elected, the circuit attorney tends to get reelected. Only three people have held the title since 1976. Joyce breezed through the last two contests unopposed.

One year ago this month, Joyce surprised allies and enemies alike by announcing she was would not run for an unprecedented fifth term.

It had been a hard couple of years for the circuit attorney's office. The August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, a black Ferguson teenager, mobilized protesters who sought to scrutinize not only Brown's death in St. Louis County but also how prosecutors were handling police shootings in St. Louis city.

And scrutinize they did. In the span of two months following Brown's death, St. Louis metro police shot and killed two young black men. Joyce's office investigated both cases, but chose not to bring charges against the officers. After the second case failed to yield criminal charges, protesters showed up on Joyce's front porch. Seven were arrested on the scene.

The organizers of the June 18 debate didn't try to hide their anticipation for Joyce's departure. The debate's printed program, distributed to attendees, featured suggested hashtags for live-tweeting the event. One was #ByeJennifer.

Now the candidates vying to replace her face a formidable task. They need to convince voters that they have the experience to prosecute murderers and rapists, but also hold the police in check. They need to show they care about victims, but — in this increasingly complex political climate — also show that they don't want to bring down the hammer on poor defendants.

In essence, they need to show they can both fill Joyce's shoes and bring major change. That the two goals may be mutually exclusive doesn't bother Reed, the debate moderator targeted by Joyce's derision.

"I think it's OK to live in the tensions of both," she says. "Instead of just blindly saying what Jennifer has been, I wanted to give the candidates some space to show us what they are."