St. Louis Observer: March 5, 2023
Lamar Johnson released from wrongful conviction; Circuit Attorney Gardner faces calls to resign; legislature aims for state takeover of St. Louis; East St. Louis sues Monsanto for factory pollution
This week’s Editor’s Note is a reminder that Tuesday, March 7, is the municipal primary election in the City of St. Louis! Find your polling place and double-check your voter registration through the City Board of Election Commissioners. We have “approval voting” for primary elections, meaning that voters can select as many candidates as they want for each race and the top two vote-receivers will move on to the general election on April 4.
You may have noticed that we’ve switched to Sunday publishing instead of Friday mornings/afternoons. Sundays seem to work better for a consistent publishing schedule, and I like the idea of being able to include updates from the St. Louis Board of Aldermen every week. Thanks for your patience as the Observer evolves and expands!
Police, prosecutorial, and judicial accountability
Lamar Johnson, a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1995, was legally adjudged to be innocent of the crime and was ordered to be released by a St. Louis City judge. The 46-page order was released at a brief court hearing, and several hours later, Johnson walked out of the St. Louis City Justice Center as an exoneree. In the weeks following his release, Johnson presented testimony to the Missouri Legislature about his experience with a new wrongful conviction law and the existing restitution laws, which bar Johnson from receiving money from the state because he was not exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence. There was no DNA evidence presented that linked Johnson to the murders, and his conviction was based on the testimony of a bad eyewitness. [Walle Amusa/St. Louis American; Jason Hancock/Missouri Independent]
In response to Johnson’s statutory inability to receive restitution for the time he spent incarcerated for a crime of which he was adjudged innocent, the Missouri Legislature seeks to expand access to restitution for those who have been exonerated of wrongfully-obtained convictions. Exonerees including Johnson, Ricky Kidd, and Josh Kezer provided testimony to the State Senate Judiciary Committee. The currently-proposed laws would remove the requirement of exoneration by DNA evidence and would grant damages of $179 per day of incarceration post-wrongful conviction, or $65,000 per year. They would also be reimbursed for attorney’s fees and have access to a fund for housing assistance, counseling, and tuition assistance. [Jason Hancock/Missouri Independent; Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio]
St. Louis County Jail, in partnership with St. Louis Community College, is now offering classes to detainees to help them earn credits while they await their trial dates. An investigation by UMSL researchers found that the average length of detention at the jail was around 3 months, so persons who are detained before trial are able to earn 3 credit hours for each 8-week course taken. [Andrea Y. Henderson/St. Louis Public Radio]
Mayor Tishaura Jones stated that Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has “lost the trust of the people,” and said that Gardner “really needs to do some soul-searching on whether or not she wants to continue as circuit attorney.” Jones’ observations were echoed by Board President Megan Green. Some aldermanic candidates have called for Gardner to resign. Gardner has received strong support from community organizations. [Alvin A. Reid/St. Louis American; Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio; Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio]
Gardner’s supporters, on the other hand, have pointed to a judge, who has presided over criminal proceedings related to the Attorney General’s complaint against Gardner. "Who gave [him] bond to begin with? It wasn't the prosecutor,” said an assistant prosecuting attorney from Gardner’s office. Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike have pointed to the “shit show” of the "cattle call docket," which means that the court has dozens, if not hundreds, of criminal cases scheduled for its morning and/or afternoon. This also means that several criminal trials are heard by the court in one day, allegedly a backlog as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been additional reports that show judges continuing to release violent offenders on house arrest and/or GPS monitoring.[Ryan Krull/Riverfront Times; Sylvester Brown/St. Louis American; Ryan Krull/Riverfront Times]
In Jefferson City, the state legislature has continued its legislative assault against the City of St. Louis by advancing legislation that would approve a state takeover of both the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the St. Louis City Circuit Attorney’s office. The move has been called “voter disenfranchisement” and “a direct slap in the face to our citizens” by elected city leaders. The legislature would also have to change the current Hancock Amendment in order to take police control, as the state constitution prohibits Missouri from requiring local governments to provide services without the state agreeing to pay for those expenses. [Sarah Kellogg/St. Louis Public Radio; Sarah Kellogg/St. Louis Public Radio]
A City deputy sheriff has sued City Sheriff Vernon Betts for employment discrimination and retaliation based on the employee’s political affiliations. The lawsuit alleges that Betts demoted the employee, used racial slurs against him, and created a hostile environment because the employee did not support Betts’ previous two political campaigns for sheriff. The employee also alleges that Sheriff Betts retaliated against him for supporting a different candidate for state senate than the sheriff had endorsed and that the sheriff banned the employee from entering the courthouse when he learned that the employee had requested a copy of his employment file through his attorney. [Sarah Fentem/St. Louis Public Radio; Ryan Krull/Riverfront Times]
Economic development and housing
Remembrance of the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood was front-and-center at the unveiling of an art installation outside of the CITY SC Stadium. The exhibition, called Pillars of Memory, acknowledges the vibrant historic Black neighborhood that was demolished in the 1950s to build Interstate 64 and to expand Saint Louis University’s campus. Mill Creek Valley was intentionally mischaracterized as a slum, resulting in the loss of thousands of homes and businesses and dozens of churches. Pillars of Memory is a permanent display of eight granite pillars etched with quotes from former Mill Creek residents and art that reflects the neighborhood’s gridlines. [Kenya Vaughn/St. Louis American]
Development plans for the former Pruitt Igoe site, as proposed by embattled white developer Paul McKee, appear to be proceeding forward with the blessing of Alderman James Page. McKee’s plans include constructing a five-story, 150,000-square-foot office building and a six-story, 202-room hotel at 20th and Cass Streets. McKee is most recently known for controversially misappropriating the name of Homer G. Phillips Hospital for his own private urgent care facility, despite community backlash and ongoing litigation by former nurses who worked at the iconic Black hospital. [Jacob Barker/St. Louis Post-Dispatch]
The City of East St. Louis is suing Monsanto Company for billions in fines for polluting the land around its former plant location in Sauget. Until the 1980s, the Monsanto plant manufactured and dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are highly toxic to humans, fauna, and flora, around Sauget. Nearly 40 years later, soil samples in East St. Louis still show “highly elevated PCB levels.” [Lexi Cortes/Belleville News-Democrat]
Beyond the Paywall
To read the below articles in full, please visit SLPL.org and access these articles through the Digital Content tab. St. Louis City & County residents can read these publications free using their library cards.
“St. Louis prosecutor’s staff down by nearly half as caseloads jump. ‘Seriously underwater.’” by Katie Kull and Erin Heffernan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Messenger: It’s judge vs. clerk in a Missouri county. But the case is really about jail fees,” by Tony Messenger, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“St. Louis jail board meeting postponed after public invested to testify about conditions,” by Taylor Tiamoyo Harris, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Messenger: He had questions on the police chief’s salary. He was told ‘cease and desist.’” by Tony Messenger, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
St. Louis City Board of Aldermen
The Board of Aldermen is on spring recess until April 17 for the Sine Die (End of Legislative Session) Meeting to end the 2022-2023 term.
BB 180, sponsored Ald. Ingrassia, creates a right-to-counsel for all persons facing eviction proceedings, or similar punitive actions, in the City of St. Louis. The bill was passed by the full Board on February 10.
BB 137, sponsored by Ald. Shameem Clark Hubbard (Ward 26), authorizes independent investigations of law enforcement misconduct and use-of-force incidents. This bill addresses a number of issues previously raised in litigation filed by the two police unions that opposed accountability and transparency within the police oversight system. The bill was passed by the full Board on February 10 and signed by Mayor Jones on February 24.
BB 64, sponsored by Ald. Shane Cohn (Ward 25), would establish “transparent, standardized, and beneficial policies and procedures” for considering development proposals before the Board of Aldermen. The bill was passed by the full Board on February 10 and signed by Mayor Jones on February 17.
Learn more about how a bill becomes a City ordinance.
Track these board bills and much more on St. Louis PoliticClips dashboard.
Quote of the Week
It appears that the ghosts of Reconstruction have come back to haunt us. It’s up to fair-minded people to make sure history stops repeating itself.
Jamala Rogers, “How the Third Reconstruction is playing out in St. Louis”