Kim Gardner Is St. Louis' First Black Circuit Attorney. That Matters — And She's Just Getting Started 

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click to enlarge Having run twice for Circuit Attorney and lost, former prosecutor Jerryl Christmas says Gardner's election was "monumental" for the black legal community. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Having run twice for Circuit Attorney and lost, former prosecutor Jerryl Christmas says Gardner's election was "monumental" for the black legal community.

In 1994, Circuit Attorney Dee Joyce Hayes added two greenhorn prosecutors to her office: Jerryl Christmas and Jennifer Joyce.

Six years later, when Hayes announced her decision not to run for a third term, it was Joyce and Christmas who fought for the vacant throne in the Democratic primary. Christmas mounted campaigns against Joyce in 2000 and 2004, but both attempts ended the same way — with Joyce cleaning his clock.

Sixteen years later, when Joyce announced her own retirement, Christmas' phone started to blow up.

"Everyone just assumed that I was going to run," he recalls. But he says he just hasn't felt the same fire for the campaign trail since his previous attempts. He left the Circuit Attorney's Office in 2001, and over the next sixteen years he transitioned from prosecutor to defense attorney, hounding Joyce and the city's police department in high-profile civil litigation and criminal defense work.

For Christmas, seeing Gardner succeed where he failed was inspiring, even though he'd once hoped to claim the mantle of circuit attorney for himself.

"Her winning the office was not only historic, it was monumental in the struggle to diversify that office," he says. "When Kim was elected, it was like a weight had been lifted off the shoulders of the whole community. There's already been a ripple effect."

Christmas believes that hiring Llewellyn and a second longtime public defender to top positions in the office were "brilliant" moves that made Gardner the talk of the black legal community. He also suggests that the visibility of a diverse staff could help attract more minorities to the office and reduce the stigma around black attorneys becoming prosecutors.

Joyce, it should be noted, has accused Christmas of fueling that very stigma. In a 2016 interview with Riverfront Times, Joyce acknowledged that she'd struggled to keep black prosecutors in the office, but she maintained that diverse hires are routinely driven away by "a ton of abuse" from the public. During the interview, Joyce singled out Christmas as a source of abuse: In November 2015, he tweeted that a ten-year-veteran prosecutor, Cynthia Copeland, was nothing more than Joyce's "black puppet."

Christmas now insists that he never intended to demean Copeland, who currently leads the Officer-Involved Shootings Unit. The "black puppet" tweet, he says, was his attempt to argue that Joyce had exploited Copeland's blackness under the guise of empowering diversity.

click to enlarge Jennifer Joyce hired Kim Gardner as a rookie prosecutor in 2005. Now that she's Circuit Attorney, Gardner has already rolled back some of Joyce's policies. - FILE PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • FILE PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Jennifer Joyce hired Kim Gardner as a rookie prosecutor in 2005. Now that she's Circuit Attorney, Gardner has already rolled back some of Joyce's policies.

"We had these black families whose children had been killed by the police, and whenever Joyce would meet with the family to talk about the case, she would bring Cynthia Copeland," Christmas says. He had no problem with Copeland's work, he says, but he believed Joyce was using Copeland's blackness as a buffer whenever sensitive cases arose involving cops and grieving black families. (Copeland declined comment.)

Christmas wasn't making his critique as a bystander. He represented the families of Vonderitt Myers and Mansur Ball-Bey, two teenagers who were shot and killed by police officers. In both cases, Joyce declined to prosecute the officers involved.

That's the tricky part of diversifying an office that also wields the direct power of the criminal justice system. Gardner is changing that system, but there may come a day, probably soon, when she and Christmas clash, finding themselves on opposite sides of a case. How will she react when Christmas starts tweeting about her? Or if protesters show up at her office?

"I know that at some point there's going to be a crisis, that's just inevitable," Christmas says. "It's the prosecutor's office. It's not going to be a honeymoon forever."

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March 25, 2020

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