Six prosecutors, already in St. Louis for a university’s panel discussion, joined a rally Tuesday at a downtown courthouse to show support for Gardner. The St. Louis circuit attorney on Monday filed what she called an unprecedented federal civil rights lawsuit accusing “entrenched interests” including the city, the police union and others of intentionally impeding her efforts to reform racist practices, in part by seeking her ouster. Among other things, the lawsuit alleges violations of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.
Gardner became St. Louis’ first-ever black circuit attorney when she took office in January 2017. She is among several “progressive” prosecutors elected in recent years who have increasingly focused on issues such as reducing mass incarceration, providing drug and mental health treatment and holding police accountable.
Her methods have rankled some in St. Louis’ criminal justice community. Other black female prosecutors said they, too, have received pushback. “The vitriol toward black women is especially problematic,” said Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who won re-election in 2018 as Baltimore's top prosecutor, despite a tenure that, like Gardner's, has been characterized by a rising homicide rate and discord with police.
“I’ve experienced it myself," Mosby said. "I’ve been in office for five years and I’m here to let her know that she’s not alone.” Suffolk County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Rachel Rollins said the establishment often tries to marginalize black female prosecutors.
“When we point out that institutional racism and class-ism are alive and well in our criminal system, they call us angry, crazy, desperate or frantic, a dog whistle that is all too familiar for us,” Rollins said. “We are not deterred and let them keep talking because we aren’t going anywhere.”
Gardner's lawsuit names the city government for which she works. Jacob Long, spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson, who like Gardner is a Democrat, called the lawsuit “meritless.” Jeff Roorda, the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association who is named in the suit along with the union, said pushback against Gardner is because she is “the worst prosecutor in the United States,” not because of her race or gender. He said during a news conference that her policies have allowed killers and other violent criminals to go free and contributed to St. Louis’ worst-in-the-nation per capita homicide rate.
He was particularly perturbed by Gardner citing the Ku Klux Klan Act, enacted during Reconstruction largely to help protect freed slaves from violence. The lawsuit says the act “was adopted to address precisely this scenario: a racially motivated conspiracy to deny the civil rights of racial minorities by obstructing a government official’s efforts to ensure equal justice under law for all.”
The lawsuit cites a litany of racial problems involving St. Louis police, including a watchdog group’s report last year that identified several officers accused of posting racist, violent or prejudiced messages on Facebook. It cites how a black undercover officer was allegedly attacked by four white colleagues who mistook him for a protester during a 2017 demonstration, and how the police union provided lawyers after the officers were federally indicted.
The suit also notes Roorda’s support of Darren Wilson, the white officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Wilson was not charged with a crime and he later resigned.
Gardner is scheduled to be deposed Wednesday in the criminal case against William Tisaby, the private investigator she hired in early 2018 to investigate former Gov. Eric Greitens. Gardner charged the Republican governor with invasion of privacy for allegedly taking a compromising photo of a woman during an extra-marital affair. The charge was eventually dropped but Greitens resigned in June 2018.
In March 2018, Greitens' attorneys accused Tisaby of lying during a deposition. Last June, Special Prosecutor Gerard Carmody indicted Tisaby for perjury. Tisaby denied wrongdoing. Tisaby's indictment raised concerns about whether Gardner was complicit in his alleged crime. The indictment said Gardner failed to correct his inaccuracies or report them, and that she made incorrect statements to defense lawyers and a judge. She said she did nothing illegal or unethical.
Gardner was not indicted but the investigation remains open. Roorda said Gardner's lawsuit is an effort to distract from her own legal troubles. “Make no mistake: This is the last act of a desperate woman who is trying to silence her critics,” Roorda said.