With the recent transfer of two murder cases to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the City of St. Louis joins St. Louis County in becoming free of pending death penalty cases within the judicial circuit. Cornelius M. Green and Phillip J. Cutler originally were charged with murder in 2016 by then-circuit attorney Jennifer Joyce, but it was the administration of current St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner that chose to pursue the death penalty for both men in 2017.
The moment marks a victory for anti-death penalty activists in St. Louis, who have lobbied Gardner for years to exercise her prosecutorial discretion and stop pursuing capital punishment in St. Louis. In St. Louis County, Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell campaigned on the abolition of the death penalty, and his administration has sought life sentences instead of capital punishment since January 2019.
On March 9, a federal grand jury indicted Green and Cutler, both for murder for hire and conspiracy to commit murder for hire in the 2016 deaths of Jocelyn Peters and her unborn child. Gardner’s office maintained the case until St. Louis City Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Hogan quietly cleared a procedural pathway for the federal marshals to assume custody of the two men, by entering detainers against them last Thursday.
Hogan’s detainers also function as a “fail-safe:” if the federal prosecutors are unable to secure convictions, the detainers ensure Green and Cutler will return to the St. Louis City Jail to face the paused state criminal charges.
According to federal court records, both Green and Cutler were ordered into custody of the U.S. Marshals on March 28 and they were appointed federal public defenders to represent them. Shortly after Green and Cutler were indicted, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a notice of intent with the federal court, announcing that federal prosecutors would “not seek the death penalty against the defendants.”
No further hearings have been scheduled in the circuit court for either man, demonstrating the intent to pause those cases as the federal charges proceed. An attorney conference has been set for early June in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri.
Elyse Max, executive director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the developments with Green’s and Cutler’s cases were a step in the right direction, especially with capital punishment off the table as a possible sentence.
“We remain hopeful that Circuit Attorney Gardner will become the second progressive prosecutor in Missouri to take a policy position and stop pursuing the death penalty in all cases,” Max said.
The Circuit Attorney’s Office has not made a public statement on the federal indictments, nor has Gardner said whether her office would continue to seek the death penalty in future cases.
Prior to federal intervention, Gardner’s office requested to appoint a special prosecutor to Green’s and Cutler’s cases, along with another capital case against Ollie Lynch, who has been accused of three 2017 murders. Lynch’s case was decertified as a death penalty case in January of this year. According to Max, with Green’s and Cutler’s cases moving to federal court, there are now 13 death penalty cases pending across the state.
A few weeks ago, the St. Louis School Board of Education was rocked when two of its members - Dr. Joyce Roberts, elected in 2018, and Regina Fowler, appointed by former mayor Lyda Krewson in 2020 - announced their immediate resignations from the Board. After months of secrecy and off-the-books meetings, insiders say that the public is finally getting a glimpse of the internal upheaval at the Board.
The vacant seats left open by Dr. Roberts and Fowler have yet to be filled, but what has emerged from their abrupt departures are the subtle signs of internal struggle and a pattern of questionable behavior toward elected Black women.
Exhibit A: Fowler’s letter of resignation addressed to Board President Matt Davis, who was elected to the Board in 2021. Fowler’s letter was not public but was leaked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For context, Davis was internally elected as the Board of Education’s leader on April 12, beating the incumbent Dr. Roberts in a 4-3 split. While that vote seems to be where the public-facing chaos began, the drama referenced in Fowler’s letter started months earlier, when the St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted to establish a City-wide plan for public schools.
In her letter dated April 26, Fowler specifically charged that the internal politics within the Board of Education “inevitably make the children and families the losers.” Without providing specifics, Fowler said in the letter that “collusion prevented other very qualified candidates who have longer terms to fulfill from leading the Board.” She noted, however, that her complaint was not about Davis winning or Dr. Roberts’ loss. What Fowler suggests is that she “saw soon after [her] appointment Board members colluding to get what they wanted and in effect eliminating diversity of thought.”
Fowler is unclear what is meant by “colluding,” but what is clear is that political dysfunction at the Board of Education is getting in the way of members being able to make the best decisions for both their leadership and for the students they serve.
The Board’s nonpublic problems allegedly stem from the passage of Board Resolution 65, which supported a moratorium on opening new schools in St. Louis and tasked Board members with bringing “education system leaders, education practitioners, community stakeholders, city- and state-level policy makers, and scholars in the development of such a plan” together to develop a City-wide plan for education.
But who is included in that definition of “public schools,” however, has been where much of the Board’s internal political turmoil lies, and there are two clear divisions within the Board of Education. One faction within the Board believes that all students in the City of St. Louis should be represented in the plan discussion; the other believes that only St. Louis Public Schools students should be considered in the plan.
Instead of focusing on the obvious dysfunction discussed by Fowler in her resignation letter or sitting at the table to negotiate the City-wide plan, education activists have belitted her allegations. Their attention shifted to Mayor Tishaura O. Jones and Congresswoman Cori Bush and elected Black women were blamed for the internal strife within the Board of Education. Toward Fowler, white activists with Solidarity for SLPS doubted the concerns that she raised, reducing her experience on the Board to “electoral sour grapes.” Solidarity for SLPS targeted Rep. Bush after a charter school announced her appearance at a block party; Bush was there to discuss recent trauma experienced by students at the school. Lauren Rea Preston, a vocal SLPS parent who typically sides with Solidarity for SLPS, lobbed bizarre accusations at Mayor Jones in an op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- already hostile toward Black women – claiming that Jones’ “neoliberal” education policies are driven by capitalism without actually explaining her position.
Davis, on the other hand, has made some questionable moves since assuming power. Board Member Alisha Sonnier, who represented the Board of Education at the City’s Tax Incremental Financing (“TIF”) Commission, was suddenly removed from her commission seat by Davis, reportedly in retaliation for her support of Dr. Roberts’ re-election bid. And notably, several of Davis’ posts criticizing Black elected women have been deleted from his Twitter account. Elected officials generally are not allowed to delete posts from social media accounts used for official purposes under Missouri’s open public records laws.
Davis did finally sit down with Mayor Jones’ administration last week to discuss an amicable path forward. In a statement following their meeting last Friday, the Mayor’s Office stated “[o]ur administration is ready to engage fellow community stakeholders as we move this appointment process forward as outlined by state law.”
Hopefully, for the sake of all schoolchildren in St. Louis, the Board of Education and its leadership are ready to do so, too.
Finally, State Sen. Steve Roberts, who has been multiply and credibly accused of sexual violence, released his campaign’s first ad last week. With a campaign already in trouble, voters would expect Roberts to discuss his own record or how he would differ from his political mentor and former congressman Lacy Clay. Instead, Roberts’ grossly miscalculated attack ad contained disturbing “jokes” about domestic violence and reminded voters of Roberts’ own history as an alleged abuser.
“Rather than making tasteless and offensive jokes about abusive relationships, Sen. Roberts should consider who’s really served by his run for higher office,” said Isra Allison, Bush’s campaign spokeswoman.
Roberts’ drain of campaign resources accompanies a questionable narrative planted by his campaign team in right-wing, extremist, and Republican media outlets, attacking personal security measures taken by Rep. Bush. Roberts’ suspicious leverage of conservative media aside, the timing could not be worse for his campaign.
After last week’s horrifying mass shooting in Buffalo, NY, where a white supremacist gunman specifically targeted Black customers at a grocery store, Roberts’ attacks against Bush further show how disconnected he is from the world of real leadership. One in six elected officials have experienced threats of violence related to their job, from death threats that name children or family members of the electeds, to race- and gender-specific harassment. More often than not, there is overlap between threats of violence and white supremacist values.
Rep. Bush has very valid, reasonable concerns for her safety from violent white supremacists who have already shown themselves to have no restraint toward Black people. For Roberts to make light of – or even dispute the need for -- Congresswoman Bush’s security concerns underscore his complete lack of understanding of the position for which he is running.