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Elected as a Progressive Reformer, Kim Gardner's First 21 Months Have Featured Chaos and Conflict



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Former Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce says critics don't understand the complexity of leading the city's prosecutors. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Former Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce says critics don't understand the complexity of leading the city's prosecutors.

The complexity of the circuit attorney's job is nearly impossible to understand until you actually are the circuit attorney, Jennifer Joyce says.

That's a lesson she learned, sometimes painfully, during her first years in office. She remembers being a homicide prosecutor and wondering what exactly her predecessor, Dee Joyce Hayes, did to fill the hours since she was not carrying a heavy load of cases. Now, she understands.

"You've got to deal with City Hall, the public, the media — you could do it 80 hours a week if you're so inclined," Joyce says. After retiring, she started a consulting business and cruises around the country in an RV.

Joyce acknowledges that twenty prosecutors left during her second year in office (Ryan claims it was more). After that, she says, she got serious about improving her management skills. She learned to lean on experienced litigators. And she worked to find ways to take the pulse of the staff — small things like delivering candy on birthdays as an excuse for a chat.

"When morale bottoms out, it's really a struggle," she says. "When morale is good, you can do anything."

She declines to give an assessment of Gardner's tenure so far, in part because she respects the way Hayes held her tongue during her own tough early years. But she says people should remember what a tough job circuit attorney is. "My hope is that she finds her footing in the job."

Between the Stockley case, the Greitens case and the mass exodus of prosecutors, Gardner has had few slow days. But some see signs she is indeed finding her footing.

Career prosecutor Rachel Smith was an executive staffer under Joyce and has since gone part-time for family reasons. She now focuses on death-penalty cases.

Every boss is different, she says, but she is free to do her job. "I've got the autonomy I need and the independence I need to make my own decisions," she says.

And after all the turnover, a young group of attorneys has begun to coalesce into a core that could lead the office for years to come. They're getting their shot after maybe three or four years, instead of five or six, but they are energized by their responsibilities.

"We are actually liking it, because we are getting opportunities we probably wouldn't have gotten," one says.

All but six of the office's attorney vacancies have been filled, and fewer people seem to be looking for new jobs. It was disconcerting to see so many mentors leave in such a short period, but most are just a phone call away, the current prosecutor says. And, no, Gardner was not a good communicator at the start. They often learned about big moves in their office from reading the news. But she has gotten better and is letting her attorneys work; she really has no other choice.

"Right when Kim came, it wasn't good," the prosecutor says. "But two years later, we're here and we're working hard."

The Rev. Darryl Gray, an activist and now community liaison for the Ethical Society of Police, says Gardner deserves a chance. Ultimately, the city needs her to do well, he says.

"The reality is she's in there now, and we all have an obligation to make sure she succeeds," Gray says.

It is never going to be easy. The latest clash over the exclusion list is all but guaranteed to fuel a series of flare-ups, and another major change in leadership is less than a week old. Robert Dierker, a former judge considered to be one of the state's top legal experts, left on September 7 after less than nine months as Gardner's chief trial assistant. He served a key role in the Greitens prosecution and argued in front of the state supreme court on behalf of the circuit attorney during his last week in the job. Dierker's conservative views — he railed against "femi-fascists" in a 2006 book — made him publicly controversial, but he was seen inside the office as a stabilizing force. It's a role he continued to play on his way out of the door.

"In the past, some departing folks have been rather snide in their farewells," he wrote in an email to staff. "I want everyone to know that you work for a fine person in Kim and a fine office, which you all make what it is. Kim has shown great grit and integrity this year and is deserving of your support. She knows that you can and will support her in keeping the office up to high standards, and she truly wants to make the office a better place to work."

The departure of Dierker is sure to be a blow, but this time Gardner seems to be prepared. She named his replacement, former Jefferson County associate judge and assistant prosecuting attorney Travis Partney, at the end of July. As far as criticisms about how she has run the office, she makes no apologies. The job is more complicated than it has ever been, she says. St. Louis' crime is high, and the public wants change.

She says, "I'm that prosecutor who is choosing to look at those complex issues."

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