St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner
The state Supreme Court ruled that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner can simultaneously investigate cops who shoot suspects and prosecute those same suspects.
In a 7-0 decision on Tuesday, the high court backed Gardner, who fought a circuit court judge's attempt to block St. Louis prosecutors from handling a gun case.
The case in question began in August 2017, when then-26-year-old Wendell Davis was arrested after a violent showdown with city police officers.
In an incident report, police said Davis was a passenger in a truck that had a stolen license plate. He and the driver allegedly ran off after officers stopped the truck. Police say Davis ducked behind a car, pulled out a gun and pointed it at one of the cops. The officer fired, hitting Davis in the back. Davis lived, but he was paralyzed.
Prosecutors pursued five felonies against him, including unlawful possession of a weapon, resisting arrest and stealing. The case necessarily depends on the officer as a key witness, but he was hesitant to testify. That's because, at the same time, lawyers in the Circuit Attorney's "public integrity" section were tasked with reviewing his use of force in the case.
A lawyer for the officer argued that put his client in the legally hazardous position of providing information to prosecutors that might then be used against him. The officer who shot Davis is listed only as A.F. in the supreme court's decision, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch identified him as Officer Amon Figgs
His attorney filed a motion to disqualify anyone in the Circuit Attorney's Office from handling the case. Circuit Court Judge Timothy Boyer then issued an order, saying it created an "appearance of impropriety" for prosecutors to pursue both ends of the case — criminal charges against Davis and a review of the police shooting — at the same time.
But Gardner argued it was her job to prosecute defendants and
try to determine if police acted properly. She noted that the public integrity attorneys are a separate unit within her office and work independently from the line prosecutors who would handle the criminal case against Davis.
In the end, Figgs' actions were deemed justified, removing the supposed conflict. Davis' case has been delayed by all the legal wrangling, but the charges against him remain.
In the supreme court's decision, the judges wrote that voters have entrusted Gardner to decide how best to run her office. She holds "one of the most powerful positions in our legal system" with nearly "unfettered" discretion. Not even a judge has the authority to take away those powers, they concluded.
"The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed, as the elected Circuit Attorney, I am a representative for the people of the City of St. Louis, therefore legally empowered by our state's constitution to make decisions that I believe are in the best interest of the people in this city," Gardner said in a news release.
The supreme court picked up the case even though Boyer rescinded his order in mid-September after prosecutors announced they were not going to charge Figgs. The court explained that the case had already begun and that it was a "public interest," given that it involved some of the essential duties of an elected official.
The scenario of a cop who is called on to be a witness after using force, the judges note, is also "almost certain to recur."
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