Ex-homicide prosecutor challenges St. Louis circuit attorney

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FILE - In a Monday, Jan. 13, 2020 file photo, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner speaks in St. Louis. Gardner became St. Louis' first Black circuit attorney when she was elected in 2016 and has enacted a progressive, reformist agenda. She also earned attention for high-profile cases against Missouri's former governor and a couple who waved guns at protesters. Gardner is being challenged in the Aug. 4, 2020, Democratic primary by Mary Pat Carl, who is white and who previously worked as the city's lead homicide prosecutor. She's pledging to put more violent criminals behind bars. (AP Photo/Jim Salter, File)

ST. LOUIS – The fate of St. Louis’ elected prosecutor may rest with which side city voters fall in two competing national debates: criminal justice reform versus the push to crack down on crime.

Kim Gardner became St. Louis’ first Black circuit attorney when she was elected in 2016 and has enacted a progressive, reformist agenda. She also earned national attention in 2018 when she filed charges against Missouri's governor at the time, Eric Greitens, and again last month when she charged a couple, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, for pointing guns at racial injustice protesters.

Gardner is being challenged in the Aug. 4 Democratic primary by Mary Pat Carl, who previously worked as the city’s lead homicide prosecutor. Carl, who is white, is pledging to put more violent criminals behind bars in St. Louis, one of the nation’s deadliest cities.

The winner will be heavily favored in November. St. Louis is overwhelmingly Democratic.

The death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in May after being pinned at the neck by a white Minneapolis police officer, spurred calls for wholesale changes in the criminal justice system, especially how police, prosecutors and the courts treat Black people. At the same time, Republicans, including President Donald Trump, are focusing on law and order. Gov. Mike Parson spent last week traveling the state touting his plan to push back against violent crime.

Bill Hall, a professor of political science at Webster University in suburban St. Louis, said everything is coalescing in Gardner’s re-election bid.

“The focus is on St. Louis,” Hall said.

It's a rematch of sorts. Four years ago, Gardner easily defeated Carl and two other opponents. This time around, Gardner has a record to run on. How that record grades out depends on who you ask.

Gardner has frequently feuded with police and developed an “exclusion list” of officers she deemed not credible to serve as primary witnesses. She has sued her own city, the police union and others, claiming a race-based conspiracy aimed at forcing her out of office. And she has pursued high-profile prosecutions of Greitens and the McCloskeys, even as critics such as Carl contend she should be focusing on violence in the city with one of the nation's highest murder rates.

“Now she has to answer for the things that she has done for the past 3 ½ years, and I think that’s where people are disappointed,” Carl, 43, said in an interview. “She said in 2016 she would be committed to tackling violent crime. It’s grown worse. There’s no plan.”

Supporters cite Gardner’s accomplishments, including reducing the number of people incarcerated, ending prosecution of low-level marijuana crimes, and expanding programs offering a second chance to released prisoners. The city's Black leaders in particular have stood behind her.

“She reflects what we perceive as a new direction for social justice on several levels,” said Zaki Baruti, leader of the St. Louis-based Universal African Peoples Organization.

Hall said Gardner was elected with a mandate to initiate reforms and has stuck to it -- even at political risk.

“She appears to be willing to focus on what she believes is in the best interest of fairness, and if that means that to some it appears she’s soft on crime, or to some that she’s not locking people up and throwing away the keys, then so be it," Hall said.

In an interview, Gardner, 44, blamed the violence on Missouri’s lax gun laws. She said the biggest problem in prosecuting homicides and other violent crime is that witnesses, many fearing retaliation, refuse to cooperate — a problem that she notes began long before she took office. She said she’s working to change that through reforms that make the system more fair to all.

“We have to look at how we can better build trust so when there is a terrible instance where somebody loses their life, people will come forward,” Gardner said.

Gardner’s tumultuous relationship with the St. Louis establishment began in earnest in February 2018, when she accused Greitens of taking an unauthorized and compromising photo of a woman during an extramarital affair and threatening to post it if she spoke of their relationship.

The charge was dropped in May 2018, but Greitens, also facing ethics investigations, resigned in June 2018.

Earlier this month, Gardner drew scrutiny over her decision to charge the McCloskeys with felony unlawful use of a weapon for displaying guns as protesters marched near their home on June 28. The couple said they felt threatened, while protest leaders said the march was peaceful.

Republican leaders were outraged. Trump called the charges “an egregious abuse of power,” his press secretary said. Parson vowed to likely pardon if they're convicted. Sen. Josh Hawley asked the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene, and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt asked a judge to dismiss the case.