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100 percent turnover in St. Louis prosecutor’s office in 2 ½ years

The St. Louis prosecutor’s office has seen more than 100 percent turnover in the past 2 ½ years following a change in leadership.

Since Kimberly Gardner became circuit attorney, after campaigning to be a reformer, more than 65 prosecutors have quit or been fired, causing the office to lose a combined 470 years of experience prosecuting crimes in St. Louis, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Former Assistant Circuit Attorney Jeff Ernst, who’s now in private practice, said the concern is that “you don’t have the people that are entrenched that can teach the people fresh out of law school.” The result is that major cases often get dismissed on the eve of trial.

Gardner was elected in November 2016 after campaigning to rebuild trust in the criminal justice system at a time when the St. Louis area was still healing from the events in nearby Ferguson, where a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, two years earlier. She has promised to reduce jail populations, expand diversion programs, demand more thorough police investigations, and reduce crime before it starts.

“You’re going to get some of that turnover when you have a progressive agenda,” said defense lawyer and former city prosecutor Jerryl Christmas, who spoke at a Gardner support rally Thursday at City Hall. “Because that has not been the norm for the circuit attorney.”

But Bennett L. Gershman, a law professor at Pace University in New York and former prosecutor in Manhattan, said the turnover rate in Gardner’s office is “astonishing.” It’s unusual, he said, for enthusiastic new hires, their minds focused on “serving the public, making the community safer and doing justice,” to leave so quickly.

“That has a drastic, drastic impact on the system,” he said.

Data from the 22nd Circuit Court show the dismissal rate of felony cases over the past 32 months is the highest it has been in a decade.

“Quite honestly, the office is made up of rookies and that’s why I think the win rate is so bad,” said Terry Niehoff, a longtime St. Louis defense lawyer, former Jefferson County prosecutor and frequent Gardner critic.

About half of the prosecutors who left did so in Gardner’s first year. Gardner, who declined to discuss the current state of her office, initially downplayed the turnover, telling the Post-Dispatch she believed most of those leaving were loyal to her predecessor and resistant to Gardner’s reforms.

“Some people want to go through it with me, and some do not,” she told the Post-Dispatch in 2017. “Most of those people who left, I’m not missing them.”

About 20 more prosecutors left last year. So far this year, the office has lost more than a dozen prosecutors. Executive staffers also have gone, including Gardner’s second chief of staff who recently quit.

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