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St. Louis judges ‘deeply’ concerned by prosecutor shortage

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The departure of two more prosecutors from the already understaffed St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office is “deeply concerning” to judges, a spokesperson for the court system said Monday.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, citing emails it obtained, reported that assistant prosecutors Alex Polta and Chris Desilets have resigned. Both had been with the circuit attorney’s office since 2017. The newspaper said that about 23 prosecutors are left to handle thousands of cases.

“More recent departures from the Circuit Attorney’s Office — leaving fewer attorneys to prosecute hundreds of serious cases on the trial docket — are deeply concerning to the judges of the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court,” court system spokesperson Joel Currier said in a statement. “We will continue to make reasonable accommodations amid the CAO’s current staffing crisis while always balancing the rights of defendants, crime victims and their families to ensure the fair and efficient administration of justice.”

Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office responded that despite “some high-profile departures,” adjustments have been made to ensure all cases are covered. Meanwhile, the office is actively recruiting new attorneys, the statement said.

“Despite constant criticism and scrutiny, the team continues to pull together to serve the City of St. Louis under the leadership of Circuit Attorney Gardner,” a statement said.

Gardner has faced escalating criticism in recent months. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, a Republican, is seeking to remove Gardner from office. Bailey alleges that too many cases, including homicides, have gone unpunished, that victims and their families are left uninformed, and that the prosecutor’s office is too slow to take on cases brought by police.

Gardner, a Democrat and St. Louis’ first Black circuit attorney, accused Bailey of political gamesmanship. Many of the region’s Black leaders have accused Bailey of racism. A hearing in the removal effort is scheduled for September.

Last week, two separate judges considered contempt of court charges against Gardner because of two separate instances where prosecutors failed to show up. Polta and Desilets were at the center of those cases.

Judge Scott A. Millikan ruled at a hearing on April 24 that he would not hold Gardner in contempt for a case where her office failed to have a prosecutor present for the first day of a murder trial. Polta told the judge it was his case but that he had taken medical leave; he said he thought he had made arrangements to have another attorney cover for him.

But on Thursday, Judge Michael Noble announced that he will appoint a special prosecutor to build a contempt case against Gardner and Desilets after no one showed up for two court dates in an assault case. Noble said from the bench that Gardner’s office appears to be a “rudderless ship of chaos.”

Criticism of Gardner escalated earlier this year after 17-year-old Janae Edmondson, a volleyball standout from Tennessee, was struck by a speeding car after a tournament game in downtown St. Louis. She lost both legs.

The driver, 21-year-old Daniel Riley, was out on bond on a robbery charge despite nearly 100 bond violations that included letting his GPS monitor die and breaking the terms of his house arrest, according to court records. Critics questioned why Riley was free despite so many bond violations.

Gardner has often been at odds with Republicans. In 2018, she charged then-Gov. Eric Greitens with felony invasion of privacy, accusing him of taking a compromising photo of a woman during an extramarital affair. The charge was eventually dropped. But Greitens, a Republican who was also under investigation by Missouri lawmakers, resigned in June 2018.

The case drew scrutiny that led to the conviction of Gardner’s investigator. Gardner received a written reprimand for failing to produce documents and mistakenly maintaining that all documents had been provided to Greitens’ lawyers.

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