Kim Gardner could be the most transformative circuit attorney in St. Louis history if she would get out of her own way.
Gardner, of course, is a crusading criminal justice reformer who set up a wrongful conviction unit trying to free innocent prisoners. She’s taken on the powerful (and racist-adjacent) St. Louis Police Officers Association by refusing to let cops accused of misconduct bring cases to her office. She firmly believes mass incarceration makes crime worse by gutting poor communities that are already the victims of crime, racism and disinvestment.
At the same time, she runs an office where prosecutors repeatedly failed to show up in felony cases, resulting in dismissed charges and the angry resignation of her lead homicide prosecutor. She’s plea-bargained down a murder case that left the African-American mother of the victim calling for Gardner’s dismissal. The Post-Dispatch reports that more than one-third of all felony cases were dismissed by Gardner’s office in 2020. The paper’s Joel Currier also reported there was a breathtaking 100 percent turnover of prosecutors in her office in 2019. She’s facing an ethics probe for the bungled prosecution of disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens and for apparently perjured statements made by a special investigator she hired.
Seven sources, all current or former associates of Gardner’s, paint a picture of an office with high ideals hamstrung by incompetent management; questionable hires; confusion in even seemingly small matters such as who gets assigned which cases; a shortage of experienced prosecutors; and Gardner’s own seeming inability, or at least reluctance, to question her own judgement.
One source familiar with Gardner’s thinking admits there are administrative problems in the office, but points out that Gardner, as a progressive Black woman prosecutor, faces both racist and sexist headwinds that none of her predecessors had to face. Another factor, the source says, is the often seeming-incompetence of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, which frequently brings to Gardner’s office cases riddled with mistakes, while having one of the lowest rates of solving crimes of any police department in the country.
The union representing those cops, the SLPOA, has attacked Gardner ever since she took office in 2016. Attacking Gardner as “the worst prosecutor in America,” the union has ripped Gardner as a soft-on-crime “militant.” Also joining the attacks have been Missouri’s pro-Trump governor, Mike Parson, and uber-conservative state Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
The campaign against Gardner by a union known for defending racist officers and political figures allied with the white nationalists of Trumpian “populism” has given the circuit attorney plenty of cover with the city’s progressive voters who first elected her in 2016 and overwhelmingly re-elected her in 2020.
But regardless of attacks on Gardner by rabid conservatives and racists, the fact remains that the circuit attorney’s office has been the victim of numerous unforced errors that reveal, at the very least, often rampant administrative incompetence. And the case of accused murderer Brandon Campbell has become an avatar for that apparent dysfunction.
On April 9, 2020, surveillance video showed Campbell pulling his Chrysler 300 in front of a house in the 3700 block of Aldine Avenue in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood about a mile north of the Fox Theatre and Powell Symphony Hall. It was about 9 p.m. The video shows Campbell arguing with 30-year-old Randy Moore. As Moore turns and walks away, Campbell shoots him. Moore was found by police dead in the street.
Campbell left town, first traveling to Arizona, then Texas, where he was arrested by U.S. marshals in December after Gardner’s office charged him with first-degree murder. The case would eventually be assigned to lead homicide prosecutor Kim Arshi. But Arshi never knew it, because she started maternity leave in May. While Arshi was out of the office, someone electronically signed her name to documents in 20 homicides, listing her as prosecutor in each one.
On July 14, Campbell and his attorney were in court for a hearing on turning over information to the defense. Prosecutor Arshi, out of the office and unaware it was happening, didn’t show up. Neither did anyone else from Gardner’s office. Circuit Court Judge Jason Sengheiser exploded, noted that this was the third time Gardner’s office had been a no-show in the case. He said Gardner’s office had “abandoned its duty,” and dismissed the charges.
Campbell went free and into hiding. Gardner’s office re-filed the charges. For a second time, Campbell ended up being grabbed by U.S. marshals in the suburbs. And prosecutor Arshi resigned July 20. The family of Moore, the man Campbell allegedly killed, ripped Gardner as “a poor excuse for a prosecutor.”
But the Campbell case wasn’t the only foul-up by Gardner’s office in mid-July. The same week Campbell was released, her office dropped murder charges against Terrion Phillips, on trial for allegedly killing a man who was washing his truck in 2019. They dropped similar charges against Gregory Seddons, charged with gunning down a fellow burglar during a 2018 break-in.
In all of those cases, prosecutors told the judges they were hampered by a lack of experienced attorneys in Gardner’s office. When I asked a source close to Gardner whether they had enough attorneys, I was told only that “we’re always looking for experienced prosecutors.”
Unlike the ethics charges Gardner faces in relation to the charges her office brought against then-Gov. Greitens, none of these foul-ups is the result of a politically motivated vendetta. Greitens, arguably guilty of both sexual assault and illegally using his nonprofit’s mailing list to raise money for his campaign, filed an ethics complaint against Gardner over her prosecution, a complaint based mostly on revenge, dog-whistle racism and GOP shamelessness.
But unlike that complaint, and unlike attacks against her by the cop union and Missouri’s Trumpista governor and attorney general, her office’s problems with something as simple as showing up in court aren’t the result of racist vendettas. They’re the result of bad administration, mismanagement and incompetence on several levels.
Gardner has ‘fessed up to the no-show problems, said the buck stops with her, and has vowed that nothing like this will ever happen again.
Crime victims and their families hope she’s right.