Judge: No contempt of court for St. Louis prosecutor

Apr 24, 2023, 10:24 AM

FILE - St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner speaks on Jan. 13, 2020, in St. Louis. A St. Louis ju...

FILE - St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner speaks on Jan. 13, 2020, in St. Louis. A St. Louis judge on Monday, April 24, 2023, ruled he will not hold St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner in contempt of court after her office failed to have a prosecutor present when a murder trial was scheduled to begin earlier this month. Gardner, a Democrat, also is facing an ouster effort by Republican Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey who alleges she is incompetent in her job. Gardner has called Bailey's removal effort politically motivated. (AP Photo/Jim Salter, File)

(AP Photo/Jim Salter, File)

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The city’s elected prosecutor was not in contempt of court as a result of her office’s failure to have a prosecutor present when a murder trial was due to begin, a St. Louis judge ruled Monday.

Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office let “fall through the cracks” the fact that the prosecutor for the case, Alex Polta, was out on medical leave and no replacement was assigned, Judge Scott A. Millikan determined after a 45-minute hearing. But Millikan said the mistake didn’t rise to the level of contempt of court.

The ruling comes amid efforts by Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey to remove Gardner from office. A hearing is scheduled for September. Bailey alleges that too many cases, including homicides, have gone unpunished under Gardner’s watch, that victims and their families are left uninformed, and that the prosecutor’s office is too slow to take on cases brought by police.

For her part, Gardner alleges that the Republican attorney general’s effort to remove her is politically and racially motivated. A Democrat, she is St. Louis’ first Black circuit attorney. She has also received scrutiny for her attempts to charge then-Gov. Eric Greitens with a felony.

The contempt of court hearing took place in connection to the first-degree murder case of 18-year-old Jonathon Jones, initially scheduled to begin on April 17. At Monday’s hearing, Jones’ attorney asked Millikan to dismiss the charge, noting that his client has been incarcerated and awaiting trial for two years. The judge declined to do so and set a new trial date of June 5.

Four relatives of the man killed in the drive-by shooting, Brandon Scott, 29, were at the hearing. “Thank you,” Scott’s aunt, Felicia Cooper, said quietly when Millikan said the charge would remain.

Gardner was not at the hearing. A spokeswoman said she had no comment. Her attorney, Michael Downey, told Millikan that Gardner regretted the oversight.

“Certainly, Ms. Gardner does apologize to the court, apologizes to the family of the victim,” Downey said.

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 terms of his house arrest, according to court records. Critics questioned why Riley was free despite so many bond violations.

Jones was just 16 when he was arrested and accused of killing Scott in a drive-by shooting near the Gateway Arch. Scott was found dead inside a vehicle on the steps that lead to the Arch grounds. Jones was certified to stand trial as an adult last year.

Polta told the judge that he became ill days before the murder trial was to begin and took the proper steps to inform his supervisors. Millikan determined the mistake was unfortunate, but not intentional.

“It just seems like … it fell through the cracks,” Millikan said.

Jones’ attorney, Cecilia Appleberry, told the judge that Jones’ constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated. Millikan said that dismissing the case would likely prompt prosecutors to refile it, pushing the case back even further.

Cooper, Scott’s aunt, was thankful that Jones will still face trial.

“He took the life of a good son,” Cooper said. “Why should you be able to take a life like that and walk free?”

Gardner gained national attention in 2018 when 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 written reprimand for failing to produce documents and mistakenly maintaining that all documents had been provided to Greitens’ lawyers.

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Judge: No contempt of court for St. Louis prosecutor