Republicans' War on Kim Gardner

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has been a top target for Republicans at all levels.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has been a top target for Republicans at all levels. DANNY WICENTOWSKI

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Supporters pray over St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner in July 2019. - DOYLE MURPHY
DOYLE MURPHY
Supporters pray over St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner in July 2019.

After Kim Gardner charged the McCloskeys, she said she received a flood of racist emails and even death threats. In an interview with the Washington Post, she compared it to the old Ku Klux Klan terror campaigns.

"This is a modern-day night ride, and everybody knows it," she told the newspaper.

Adding Trump's criticism to the fray — Parson said at a news conference in late July that he had to explain to the president that the governor didn't have the authority to remove Gardner from office — further intensified the criticism she'd faced since becoming St. Louis' first Black circuit attorney, she says. She considers it part of powerful politicians at the state and federal level trying to "inject" themselves into the duties of a local prosecutor.

"And you have to ask yourself, 'Why would they do that?'" Gardner says in a phone interview. "Well, I know why. It's a way to cause fear and divisive rhetoric, and to distract from their failed leadership to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones says there is nothing personal or political about his interest in St. Louis crime, and she defended his request to let Attorney General Eric Schmitt start prosecuting some of the city's homicides.

"This proposal is not about taking away authority," Jones says in an email. "It is about fighting violent crime, achieving justice for victims, and making our communities safer. Under the proposal, the Circuit Attorney still has full and fair opportunity to prosecute murders."

Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Schmitt, also insists there is no political motive behind the attorney general's support for Parson's proposal.

"This is purely about obtaining justice for victims, protecting our communities, and prosecuting violent crime," Nuelle writes in an email. "The Attorney General was born and raised and represented the St. Louis region, and cares very deeply about what happens to the City of St. Louis. Fighting violent crime should not involve personalities or politics."

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt claims Gardner has a history of "political prosecutions." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt claims Gardner has a history of "political prosecutions."

Schmitt stands out among the circuit attorney's critics. After the McCloskeys' showdown with protesters, he hit the conservative talk show circuit, calling her a "rogue prosecutor" with an "abysmal record" on violent crime.

A former state senator, he and Gardner have clashed repeatedly. Schmitt blasted her early in the pandemic when she worked with public defenders to identify dozens of defendants for recommended release from city jails in hopes of heading off an outbreak among inmates and jail staff.

And when four cops were shot and a retired police captain killed during rioting and looting that followed nonviolent police protests in early June, he tweeted a video of a burning car.

"In a stunning development, our office has learned that every single one of the St. Louis looters and rioters arrested were released back onto the streets by local prosecutor Kim Gardner," Schmitt wrote in the tweet, which has been retweeted more than 29,000 times.

It wasn't true. Only a fraction of more than 30 people arrested had even been referred to the circuit attorney at the time of Schmitt's post, and then only on charges of stealing. Police released the rest without applying to prosecutors for charges.

Asked if the attorney general has corrected the tweet, Schmitt's spokesman Nuelle says in an email, "I can't comment on the AG's personal Twitter account or directly on that tweet, but I will say that SLMPD presented cases for prosecution to the CAO, and they refused to prosecute any of them immediately. We're glad that after the Attorney General made comment on this situation, the CAO did finally charge some of those offenders. The CAO also had a policy in place preventing the police from presenting cases for property damage resulting from looting and rioting."

On the day of the tweet, Gardner responded in a video statement.

"I've noticed that the attorney general is tweeting quite a bit about looters and rioters and not about the fact that we have a history of police violence in this city and nation," the prosecutor said. "And that has caused people to take to the streets yet again to demand accountability and change in our criminal justice system. It is clear that he does not care about justice or safety or the needs of this community. He just wants to launch a politically motivated attack against me, even if it means misleading and lying to the public."

The dustup was a precursor to the battles Gardner would fight after the McCloskey arrests: Republican officials claiming she's letting criminals off easy; Gardner firing back they deliberately miss the point.

"We never talk about the governor who was a senator, and an attorney general, who directly caused a lot of the violent crime in the city of St. Louis by gutting our gun laws," she says. "We never talk about how they have a history of not funding education, a history of cutting access to health care as well as social services that we all know could address the root causes that drive individuals to the criminal justice system. But we never report on that. It's, 'Kim Gardner is the cause of crime.'"

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.
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