Scales of Justice

Under the cover of darkness, the Missouri State Senate passed a controversial provision in the early morning hours of Sept. 3 that would grant original jurisdiction to the attorney general’s office to prosecute homicide cases in the City of St. Louis.

The language in question is an amendment to House Bill 2, which concerns the admissibility of witness statements. District 2 Sen. Bob Onder (R-St. Charles) sponsored the amendment, which would give the attorney general the power to take over homicide cases after 90 days, if no progress is made.

“We have a crime problem in the state of Missouri right now,” Onder said on the Senate floor on Sept. 3. “This, I believe, can be a valuable tool to fight the murder epidemic in the city of St. Louis.”

Loosely stated, “original jurisdiction” is if a violent felony occurs in a county, the county’s prosecutor is the sole arbiter of the case, except in situations where there is a conflict of interest. The attorney general’s can be called in to take the case, but only at the invitation of the county prosecutor.

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys considered Onder’s amendment a grave and politically motivated overreach, which targets one area of the state – and one prosecutor – St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner.

In a statement from MAPA, and its president, St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Timothy Lohmar about the legislation, they wrote, “…the issues of the City are many, and there are differing opinions on their cause, but wrestling control from a prosecutor recently reelected by her constituents is certainly not the solution. In the entire history of Missouri’s statehood, the attorney general has never had the power to prosecute homicide cases without the request – and consent – of the local prosecutor.

“Missourians believe in local control, and have never wanted statewide politicians to meddle in local affairs.”

Lincoln County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Wood said that, while rural counties routinely ask for assistance from the attorney general’s office on death penalty and complex murder cases due to limited resources, county prosecutor’s offices are independent – and should always remain that way.

He also said the amendment creates a slippery slope, one that could be – and has been – abused on both sides of the aisle.

“It wasn’t too long ago we had a Democratic governor and a Democratic attorney general who intervened in the Michael Brown case,” Wood said. “Now, you have a Republican governor and a Republican attorney general intervening on a case led by a democratically-elected prosecutor.

“If you don’t have evidence to prosecute a case, you can’t prosecute. If you don’t have witnesses, you can’t prosecute.”

MAPA also stated the bill isn’t limited to St. Louis City, or its prosecutors. The bill could set a dangerous precedent with arguments that could apply equally to any jurisdiction, including Lincoln County, and any political office.

“What happens when some statewide politician does not like the decisions made by a rural sheriff? Will the Missouri State Highway Patrol be substituted for local law enforcement?” MAPA asked in its statement. “The overwhelming number of Missourians already believe that local decisions are better than those made in Jefferson City.”

Also, the constitutionality of the provision could come under question. Missouri law requires all bills to address only a single subject. The state senate added an amendment onto a bill “relating to the admissibility of certain witness statements,” which could actually jeopardize any convictions obtained by the attorney general’s office on appeal.

Wood said he believes every person in the state wants to be safe, whether they live in Troy or St. Louis City, and county prosecutor’s offices cannot be the only solution to lowering crime rates.

“Combating crime is more than just prosecuting criminals,” he said. “It takes a holistic approach, such as educational programs and community outreach. Yes, crime is high in St. Louis, but it eventually works its way down to us.

“Even the people of Lincoln County know this.”

Wood and MAPA both said it is unrealistic Senate Republicans to pass a bill for the attorney general’s office to take on this expanded role without taxes going up for state residents.

“It is absurd to believe the attorney general could take on that role without added taxpayer expense – unless he decides to shirk his duties under existing law,” Lohmar wrote in the statement. “Under this ill-conceived legislation, Missouri taxpayers will foot the bill for the attorney general’s office to become the homicide unit for the City of St. Louis. That is simply bad for taxpayers and public policy.”

“(Lohmar) raises a good point, because this would go unfunded,” Wood said. “We’ve already had to cut budgets recently, and I’m not a fan of raising taxes at all.”