The controversial leadership of an embattled George Soros-bankrolled prosecutor in St. Louis who resigned earlier this month amid allegations of neglecting her duties is still having ripple effects as the city looks to turn the page.
Kim Gardner, a Democrat long mired in scandal and misconduct allegations, stepped down last week as St. Louis circuit attorney, the city’s top prosecutor. Gardner is one of the first progressive prosecutors whom Soros, a liberal billionaire and Democrat mega-donor, bankrolled in 2016 and again for her re-election in 2020. She announced last month that she would seek a third term.
For years, Gardner’s office faced criticism for mishandling cases and office dysfunction. One of the more prominent cases involved Levi Henning. In April 2020, Henning, now 21, was arrested for murdering a high school student. He was charged with murder the following March. Five months later, police processed DNA evidence collected from the scene that suggested someone else was there. According to Henning’s lawyer, David Mueller, however, the Circuit Attorney’s Office waited six months to disclose that evidence to him and still didn’t drop the charges. He also said prosecutors had ballistics evidence tying the killing to a murder committed by another man but sat on it for over a year.
Earlier this year, Gardner’s office dropped the charges against Henning, citing lack of evidence.
“I’ve never seen a case this bad,” Mueller said, “It’s either gross negligence or willful denial of a defendant’s constitutional rights.”
However, Henning remained in jail since he still faced a separate carjacking case from 2018, when police accused him of stealing a woman’s car at gunpoint. Henning, who was 17 at the time, spent a year in the city jail and was released to a “Teen Challenge” program in Cape Girardeau, Mo. Henning is accused of absconding from the program.
The carjacking case brought Henning to court on Thursday. During Thursday’s hearing, Mueller argued prosecutors again failed to turn over evidence.
“Since July 1st of 2019, we’ve known the DNA has been pending and we have no idea where it is, if it’s ever been tested, or what it says,” said Mueller. “We’ve got five years of failure to hand over DNA evidence over here; it’s a disaster…If you’re going to lock somebody up, if you’re going to put them in the cage,” added Mueller, “you have to provide the discovery and the evidence against them. That’s never been done in this case.”
Last week, the judge let Henning out on bond, but prosecutors immediately filed to revoke bond, saying they needed time to alert the victim.
In Thursday’s hearing, the city prosecutor said he was told to file the motion by the staff of Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, whose office is helping run the Circuit Attorney’s Office following Gardner’s resignation.
The prosecutor also said he was the latest to touch the Henning case and told the judge bluntly: “I’m not that well prepared.”
The comments were reminiscent of Gardner’s office, which came under fire for prosecutors frequently not showing up for court dates or showing up unprepared.
“Not much has changed since Ms. Gardner’s resignation, it appears,” said Mueller. “I’m concerned because all the evidence I’ve seen come out of the office has been more of the same.” Mueller is running for St. Louis circuit attorney. He cited Henning’s case as what ultimately motivated him to run when he announced his campaign last month.
Bailey’s office also cited the Henning case as an example of Gardner’s mishandling of cases in his effort to oust her from office. The final straw for Bailey, a Republican, came in February when a teenage volleyball player visiting St. Louis with her team was struck by a car and lost both of her legs.
A man was charged in the crash with assault, armed criminal action and operating a motor vehicle without a valid license. He was out on bond awaiting trial for a separate armed robbery case despite violating the terms of his bond several dozen times.
Gardner argued that her office had tried to put the suspect back in jail but that a judge had denied their request. However, there are no court records of her office — which is responsible for monitoring compliance with bond conditions and revoking them when those terms are violated — asking for his bond to be revoked, according to local reports.
In the wake of the incident, Bailey filed a petition quo warranto, the legal mechanism under a state statute that allows the attorney general to remove a prosecutor who neglects the job’s duties.
Bailey claimed that nearly 12,000 criminal cases had been dismissed by what he called Gardner’s failures. He also said more than 9,000 cases had been thrown out as they were about to go to trial, forcing judges to dismiss more than 2,000 cases due to what Bailey described as a failure to provide defendants with evidence and speedy trials.
Gardner had refused to leave office for months, calling Bailey’s efforts a political “witch hunt” and a form of “voter suppression.” She also suggested that racism and sexism are behind some of the criticism against her.
A St. Louis judge had set a tentative trial date for Sept. 25 to hear arguments from both sides.
Meanwhile, Gardner’s office was facing two proceedings for contempt of court after prosecutors failed to appear for multiple court dates. In one contempt case, a Missouri judge said Gardner had “complete indifference and a conscious disregard for the judicial process” and called her office a “rudderless ship of chaos.”
Several assistant prosecutors recently resigned from Gardner’s long understaffed office, which was plagued by persistent personnel issues, creating low morale and a dysfunctional working environment.
Gardner’s tenure was riddled with allegations of misconduct and mishandled cases long before her latest legal issues. In one case, she was publicly reprimanded and fined by the Missouri Supreme Court.
More broadly, Gardner has been scrutinized for what critics have deemed soft-on-crime policies.
Gardner was St. Louis’ first Black chief prosecutor.
On Thursday, Mueller noted how Bailey’s office had cited the Henning case as an example of Gardner’s mishandling of cases, questioning what’s happening now if the goal is to fix the alleged wrongdoing of St. Louis prosecutors in recent years.
“They were saying Ms. Gardner’s office had violated his constitutional rights, had kept him locked up for reasons that made no sense, and yet here they are saying that once again it needs to be reconsidered, and he needs to be locked up,” Mueller told KMOV.
The Circuit Attorney’s Office is currently using Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s spokeswoman as its media contact during the transition period.
Mueller filed a motion to dismiss the carjacking case against Henning, citing continued failures by the Circuit Attorney’s Office. The judge is reviewing the motion. In the meantime, Henning will remain on bond pending further review.