Separated by security glass in a visiting room in the St. Louis Workhouse, Mike Milton looked into the face of a broken system. It was a weekday in early April 2019, and the face belonged to Samuel Lee Scott.
"The whole time, his head was down," Milton recalls. "He looked physically sick; his face was so swollen. His blood pressure was so high he couldn't even close his fist to use a pen to sign a document."
Scott, a 54-year-old with an address in south St. Louis, had been arrested on April 4, 2019, on suspicion of domestic violence. Charged with misdemeanor assault, his bail was set at $5,000, money he didn't have. More pressing for Scott, however, was the fact that the jail didn't have his blood pressure medication.
During the meeting, Milton had introduced himself as a representative of the Bail Project. Founded in 2017, the nonprofit was in the middle of an ambitious attempt to challenge the practice of cash bail, which allows judges to set a price on defendants' freedom while pending criminal cases move toward trial. The Bail Project's challenge took the form of freeing thousands of St. Louis defendants otherwise stranded in jail by their own poverty, with many forced to spend months, even years behind bars.
The work came fast for Milton and the Bail Project: After its first year of operation, the nonprofit found itself processing 200 cases every month. Scott's case was in many ways typical: Milton says he had learned about him through a "community referral," which allowed his team to coordinate with a "close contact" of Scott's while the nonprofit evaluated his case.
During the meeting, Milton says he informed the jailed man of the special conditions the Bail Project used in domestic violence cases; those conditions included a follow-up meeting 24 hours after release, as well as a confirmation that the Lyft ride secured for his transport from jail would go to a different address than his victim.
But Milton was operating on partial information. At the time, he didn't know that Scott's wife, Marcia Johnson, had already filed a request for a protective order, describing how her husband "mentally and physically abused" her for three years. She had asked the court to bar him from entering her home if released.
"I don't trust Samuel Scott," Johnson's statement concluded, "nor will I feel safe."
A judge signed the order, but Milton says he and the Bail Project never knew it. The group had tried to contact Johnson as part of their intake process, he says, but they were unsuccessful.
On April 9, 2019, just after 6 p.m., a St. Louis Sheriff's deputy served Scott with the protection order that banned him from being within 300 feet of his wife.
About an hour later, Scott walked out of the Workhouse. By 11 that night, police were at the apartment he shared with his wife in the 3800 block of Wisconsin Avenue. Officers reported they found Marcia Johnson "near dead" from a beating. She died five days later.
- ST. LOUIS METROPOLITAN POLICE
- Samuel Scott was released on bail in 2019 — only to commit a terrible crime.
Scott was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. For Milton, it was a nightmare — one that would force him to temporarily leave St. Louis amid death threats that followed heavy local coverage of the Bail Project's role behind Scott's release.
Milton says the Bail Project did the best it could with what it knew at the time. Still, he says, "I could have quit at that moment."
"Not because I was bullied or the media was too hard," he continues, "but this was someone's life. I had all these thoughts — 'Did I make the wrong decision? Should I have let him stay and suffer in jail? Why am I doing this work?'"
Scott's maximum possible punishment for a Class A misdemeanor assault was a single year of jail time. Even without the Bail Project's intervention, it's likely that he would have been released, walking out of the Workhouse with his wife's protection order in his hand.
The Bail Project, Milton maintains, was just one piece of the tragedy, one chapter in a story of missed opportunities and failed intervention by the existing system of police, courts and judges.
"The Sam Scott situation was clearly a huge system failure," Milton says. "We took the blame, we took the hit, even though we weren't responsible. It was almost like they were telling me that I killed someone. It was probably one of the worst times of my entire life."
But from that nightmare, Milton began to dream.