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

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click to enlarge Robert Steele, Gardner's pick for First Assistant Circuit Attorney, brings with him two decades of experience as a public defender. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Robert Steele, Gardner's pick for First Assistant Circuit Attorney, brings with him two decades of experience as a public defender.

There's a separate challenge Gardner will soon face at the Circuit Attorney's Office: burnout. Serving as a prosecutor is incredibly tough; you accept low wages and a tough workload because you want to make a difference. Instead, many prosecutors find themselves sending an endless line of young men to jail.

Yinka Faleti lasted just under three years as city prosecutor. A childhood immigrant from Nigeria, Faleti graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and did two deployments in Kuwait as an Army officer. He moved to St. Louis in 2004 to complete a law degree at Washington University and, upon getting his degree, took a job in the St. Louis office of Bryan Cave, a law firm that boasts of paying even first-year associates salaries that easily top six figures.

Still, Faleti wanted to do good. "It was a great firm," he says of Bryan Cave. "But I realized more and more that what was in my heart was really the service that I had practiced in the Army. I wanted to get back to service."

He jumped to Joyce's office in 2011. At the time, he says, the Circuit Attorney's Office employed three black attorneys. His hire made him the fourth.

The job began to wear on him. Those judges who disagreed with Joyce's policies would often take out their frustrations on mid-level assistants like him, berating them in open court. But being yelled at by a judge wasn't the worst part of the job. For Faleti, it was the felony arraignment docket that became too much to bear.

"Every morning, Monday through Friday, that docket is full of primarily African American men in orange jumpsuits chained to one another," he says. "It is saddening. It is absolutely saddening."

Faleti never planned on becoming a career prosecutor. And so in 2013, he exchanged his prosecutor's credentials for a white-collar position with the United Way as senior vice president for philanthropic, donor and community services.

At the Circuit Attorney's Office, "I began to feel more and more that I was too late in the whole process," he says. "A prosecutor cannot undo what's been done; you're coming in after the crime has already occurred. The victim is already victimized. I wanted to get from the back-end of this process to the front. I looked to the front and I saw United Way, where we can help kids take a different course."

Faleti's story isn't unique among young black attorneys who pass through the Circuit Attorney's Office. The disheartening reality of the job, combined with low pay and high stress, contribute to high turnover and a chronic shortage of experienced black trial prosecutors.

"Prosecutors can give the victim a sense of justice, but they're ultimately too late. Even police officers are, in most cases, too late for the victim," Faleti says.

This sense of burnout isn't limited to active attorneys. Aigner Carr, who is finishing up her last year at Saint Louis University School of Law, spent a semester last fall clerking with the Circuit Attorney's Office.

"It was morally challenging," she says. Based on her classroom studies, she had expected prosecutors to take a person's background into account in how cases were handled. But when it came to seeing the process in action, those classroom ideals were replaced by the steady, heavy-handed machinery of justice.

After one trial, she cornered a prosecutor and tried to grill him about a certain defendant. What high school did he go to? How did he grow up? What are his parents like? What was his educational background?

"I didn't feel like at any point like those things were taken into account," she says. "The prosecutor was literally like, 'I don't know.'"

For soon-to-be-graduating black law students, Gardner's election has put the Circuit Attorney's Office in a new light. Alexus Williams, a second-year law student at SLU, clerked alongside city prosecutors last summer and witnessed the way some black peers discounted her choice. With a black woman now in charge, she says, that perception has changed.

"It's a very interesting position to be in as a law school student," Williams says. "Because as soon as I say, 'I want to be prosecutor,' then I'm automatically a sellout. The general stigma of people of color in prosecutorial positions is not good. What people don't understand is that there is so much power in being on that side of the system."

The stigma wasn't unique to the office under Joyce, by any means. In the early 1990s, Marvin Teer was a young lawyer clerking under a federal judge when he got an offer from the Circuit Attorney's Office. It was a position he had little interest in, at least at first.

"I didn't like the cops too much back then," he says. "As a kid, one time in particular I got stopped by police and I literally got a shotgun put to my head. So I figured that I'm going to become a public defender and I'm going to fight for truth and justice."

Teer grew up middle class in north St. Louis, the only son of a teacher; he's now a dapper administrative law judge presiding over workers' compensation cases for the state. His office walls are papered with awards and news clippings from a long legal career, including six years as a prosecutor under Dee Joyce Hayes and several more as a prosecutor with the Missouri Attorney General's Office.

Clearly, plans changed.

"I talked to my dad," Teer continues, as a jazz trumpet solo drifts from a stereo in his office. "He said, 'Son, if you going to be part of making change, you have to be part of the change.'"

Teer understood his father's point: The Circuit Attorney's Office is supposed to be an instrument of justice for all people, and that power requires an investment by all people seeking justice — even those who have been abused and locked out of the system. This realization persuaded Teer that the moral heartache was justified. "Ninety percent of the people they were locking up were black people," he notes. "That's my neighborhood and that's my community. That's my responsibility."

Law students like Williams and Carr are faced with a similar choice, and Teer believes young black attorneys should feel that shared responsibility for their communities. While it might be crushingly difficult to watch a stream of shackled black bodies passing through the warrant office, Teer recommends considering the perspective of the shackled defendants as well.

"At least they're seeing someone that looks like them," says Teer. "It helps the community believe that they will have not only some sense of justice, but maybe, in the end, they will have some degree of peace, too."

click to enlarge A former prosecutor, Chris Hinckley joined the Circuit Attorney's office executive staff after Gardner's election. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • A former prosecutor, Chris Hinckley joined the Circuit Attorney's office executive staff after Gardner's election.

Past the Bible verse hanging outside the door and down a seemingly endless hallway, St. Louis' new circuit attorney and two members of her newly hired executive staff, Robert Steele and Chris Hinckley, sit across the reflective surface of a polished conference table. They talk about diversity and change.

Gardner explains that her new hires bring assets that are less about skin tone and more about life experience.

"It's about diverse thought," says Gardner. "Many people have asked me, 'Is it just bringing African Americans into the office?' I'm like, 'No, it's about diversity of thought, of mindsets, and that's not always just about race.'"

Hinckley is part of that. He's white, and has returned to the Circuit Attorney's Office after a long hiatus; he departed the office in 2006 after seven years working as a prosecutor under Joyce to become lead counsel for the Missouri Gaming Commission. Now, he's back as Gardner's chief warrant officer.

Steele, like Llewellyn, is a former public defender and a first-time prosecutor. Before taking the job under Gardner, Steele's career in criminal defense stretched back 24 years, the last ten of which were spent as a lead defense attorney on death penalty cases.

More changes in the staff are on the horizon, but Gardner says that it was important to get her executive staff established from the get-go. The office is still in transition, and it's no easy task to change a place where things have been done a certain way for sixteen years.

Some policies, though, have been changed quickly, including the office's new flexibility on plea bargaining.

"I think it's our duty to give recommendations, to let the other side know that this is the charge," says Gardner, sounding very much like those defense attorneys who chafed under Joyce's policy of secrecy. "If a case can be disposed of without going to trial, we can start the process."

Steele sees good things coming from open lines of communication with defense attorneys and their clients. "When you start to get into the recommendations and negotiations, you see other factors which should be considered, and it contributes to a system where incarceration is not the only option," he says. "Does the defendant have mental health issues? What is his social history? What is his family background? All these things add to what has traditionally been, 'Well does he have a prior conviction?' — as if that is the totality of his life."

Hinckley chimes in. "That's justice," he says. "You can hammer every nail, every nail big and small, and the crime rate is still what it is. Kim could say, 'I hammer every nail' and she'd be safe, because people want a prosecutor to be the hammer. But how can you keep hammering those nails if that end is not changing?"

A long list of issues still faces the office, and Gardner cautions that she's still very much in the midst of transition. She's been on the job just two months, and even some policies she knows she wants to change aren't as simple as just snapping your fingers. She campaigned on expanding diversion programs and giving line prosecutors increased autonomy, for instance, but enacting those changes is a far more complicated proposition when she's still brand-new — and still must answer for every case the office handles.

Other policies require further evaluation, Gardner says. That includes Joyce's 2014 creation of a special in-house investigation unit for police shootings and a sister program to send prosecutors to homicide scenes.

"We have to look at resources and manpower," Gardner says.

The list goes on. Gardner wants to expand the office's homicide trial staff and increase starting salaries to cut down on turnover, but funding would ultimately need support from City Hall — and since she'll be joined by a new counterpart there in a few months, as well as some new members at the Board of Aldermen, everything's in limbo for now.

Gardner has other campaign promises to keep: protecting crime victims and witnesses, increasing the use of treatment courts in drug cases and reducing the barriers for ex-offenders to find work. Above all else, Gardner knows that St. Louis is looking to her and other city leaders (including the next mayor) to confront violent crime and a homicide rate that has remained at a record high two years running.

It won't be easy. Still, the larger black legal community is rooting for her, even as law students like Williams and Carr are hopeful. Someday, their names could join Llewellyn, Steele, Christmas and the others commemorated inside the black frames hanging outside the office.

Laying out her goals for the next two or three years, Gardner characteristically doesn't talk about sending murderers to prison or justice for victims — signaling, once again, the sea change underway within the Circuit Attorney's Office.

"I want to be able to say that I saved this many people from going into the criminal justice system," Gardner explains. "That they got jobs, that they're gainfully employed and productive citizens, and that we have witnesses and victims participating in the system because they trust police. That would be success right there."

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March 25, 2020


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