Ronni Zimmerman, an eighth grader in Ritneour School District, sat beside her mother on Saturday, June 18 as they listened to the four St. Louis circuit attorney candidates talk about why they would be best to replace incumbent Jennifer Joyce, who will not seek reelection.
She heard from long-time city prosecutor Mary Pat Carl; Patrick Hamacher, who has been a prosecutor in Joyce’s office for five years; state Rep. Kim Gardner, who previously tried cases when she worked in Joyce’s office; and Steve Harmon, a former city police officer and municipal prosecutor.
The two-hour forum held at Saint Louis University covered topics ranging from the death penalty to alternative sentencing. Yet, in the end, one thing fell heavy on Zimmerman’s heart, she said.
“Steve Harmon,” she said. “Everyone else said, ‘Black lives matter,’ but he said, ‘All lives matter.’ Part of me got really hurt, especially him being a black man. I agree all lives matter, but currently black lives are the ones that are being killed and oppressed.”
About 300 people attended the forum organized by young, black activists with Decarcerate STL, who drafted a series of questions. They also invited about 15 community organizations – most of them also participated in the post-Ferguson Commission’s public accountability forums – to submit and ask questions at the event.
In a pre-survey to the candidates, organizers asked them to pick between the All Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter statements. All except Harmon chose the latter.
At the forum, Kayla Reed, one of the event’s organizers, asked all of the candidates to explain their answers. Harmon said that he wanted to be unbiased and his Christian faith led him to choose that answer.
“I think many people stop listening to him after that,” said activist and former Ferguson Commissioner Rasheen Aldridge, who attended.
A people’s forum
The forum was meant to get the candidates off their talking points and to face questions they aren’t as polished and comfortable answering, said Reed.
The other main organizers were Blake Strode, an attorney with ArchCity Defenders, Nabeehah Azeez of Decarcerate STL and Michelle Higgins of Faith for Justice.
The group of four allowed all candidates to submit answers to their core questions in writing. Everyone who attended the event received a copy of these answers at the door. From there, Reed and Strode asked follow-up questions.
For example, Hamacher had stated in his answers that he received the endorsement from the black police union, the Ethical Society of Police. Reed asked him if he would support the union’s call for Police Commissioner Sam Dotson’s resignation. Hamacher meandered around a direct answer before Reed finally asked him point-blank, “Yes or no, Mr. Hamacher?”
He replied, “I can’t answer that because I’m going to have to work with him regardless.” (Of course, so do the black police officers who made a stand – every day.)
At the circuit attorney’s office, Hamacher currently works in the armed offender unit, where he focuses on homicides, assaults and robberies. He has tried one homicide case.
He seemed to want to make sure the audience understood that he wasn’t the “establishment candidate,” even though he currently works in the office. He promised that he would “modernize” the office if elected through expanding the drug court, championing a mental health court, decriminalizing the misdemeanor possession of marijuana and exploring alternative sentencing programs (which, in fact, Joyce recently instituted – Hamacher has a habit of promising to create programs that already exist).
He also said he supports calling for special prosecutors in officer-involved shootings.
So far, Carl has been pegged as the establishment candidate, having served over 13 years working in the circuit attorney’s office. She also has the endorsements of both Joyce and the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
However, at every turn, Carl seemed to surprise the audience. Some who are less supportive of Joyce came away feeling that her endorsement is doing Carl a disservice by making her mistakenly look like she walks in Joyce’s shadow.
Carl currently serves as a member of the violent crimes unit and is now the lead homicide prosecutor. In her extensive trial record in Joyce’s office, Carl has tried 36 cases of forcible rape / forcible sodomy and eight homicides (in addition, she has tried three homicides as a manager training new homicide prosecutors).
The question that was meant to knock her off balance concerned her alleged comment at a recent North City ward meeting. Residents said that if there is a murder downtown, the police chief immediately amps up resources. Yet that’s not the case in North City. She allegedly responded that the “squeaky wheel” gets the resources. Reed asked her to explain that response.
Carl said she never said that, and the statement came from the moderator. Her actual response was that the “greater community takes notice when this happens downtown, and that frustrates me,” she said.
She told a story of being the prosecutor in the case of 18-year-old Aniya Cook, a black North City resident who was killed on July 31, 2012 – 15 days before she was meant to go to Missouri State University.
About two weeks later, Megan Boken, a white Saint Louis University graduate, was killed in the Central West End.
“I was livid as a prosecutor, because I had Aniya’s file on my desk and a colleague had Megan’s file on her desk,” Carl said. “And that file I knew got more resources from the community and the police department and my office. And I’m still to this day angry about it.”
In her closing statement, Carl said, “The reason I’m running is that I’m a mom and I’m tired of sitting across the desk from other moms and they have lost their children to violence in our city.”
Gardner represents Missouri’s 77th District, which includes part of North City and the Central West End. She quickly established herself as the person who has the deepest understanding of the neighborhoods where the crimes takes place and how the lack of resources in impoverished areas affects the crime levels.
She said she would use diversion and restorative justice programs and specialty courts to “stop low-level offenders from becoming hardened criminals.” She also believes in providing re-entry assistance to lower recidivism rates.
Though she was apparently the audience’s darling, organizers did not spare her direct questions.
“Ms. Gardner, why do you feel you are capable of doing the job of circuit attorney without having prosecuted a single felony?” Reed asked.
“Well, first of all, that’s a mistake,” she said. “I have prosecuted felonies.”
Like Hamacher, she worked in the circuit attorney’s office for five years. She said she worked her way up to felony cases, such as burglaries and drug cases, while in the office from 2005 to 2010. She said she assisted on three murder trials and two assault cases.
“The highest-level cases she handled were burglaries and car thefts,” Joyce said of Gardner. “She prosecuted no violent felonies. She has handled hundreds of cases that did not go to trial.”
However, Gardner also has served as a lawyer in other settings and is a state representative and a registered nurse. Those experiences combined give her what the office needs to address “new challenges,” she said.
“When you talk about this career prosecutor rhetoric, that’s what we’ve been using for decades and we still have 180 murders and most of those murders are unsolved,” she said. “We still have a lack of trust in the whole system. When you talk about experience, I would love experience from a variety of places.”
Gardner continually drove home the point that the circuit attorney’s office needs witnesses to prosecute cases, and people won’t come forth if they don’t trust the office. Gardner said she is the candidate who can gain that trust.
Violent by design
Newly-elected Pine Lawn Councilwoman Roslyn Brown listened to the candidates with her daughter (Zimmerman). While she doesn’t vote in the city, she understands that this position will affect the entire region. In the end, the two candidates who stood out to her were Carl and Gardner.
“I really liked their more humanistic responses,” she said. “It seemed like they were more in tune with how it felt from a victim’s perspective. I feel they may implement more programs and services that will reach into the community before the crimes are being committed.”
Just after Hamacher finished his closing statement, an African-American woman shouted that she was sick of hearing the word “violent” to describe St. Louis and the people who have committed crimes.
“You as prosecutors, you need to know the root of the problem,” she said. “It is by design that you are dealing with violence. These people are abused and deprived.”
The disparities in resources cause these problems, she said. The woman went on screaming and crying out of turn for several minutes.
After she was done, Reed said, “We are not interrupting people. This is an emotional situation, especially when you are a person of color, especially when you a mother who has lost children. We are going to honor her and respect the fact that she did that.”