Senate passes bill targeting Black St. Louis prosecutor

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — A faction of Republican lawmakers forced a bill through the Senate early Thursday morning that would give the Missouri attorney general power to prosecute St. Louis homicides, a move widely seen as a rebuke of the city's first Black prosecutor.

Senators voted 22-8 to pass the bill, which would allow the attorney general, currently Republican Eric Schmitt, to prosecute St. Louis homicides if Democratic St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner's office doesn't act on those cases in 90 days and police ask for an intervention.

In Missouri, the attorney general has limited power to prosecute most crimes, a task typically left to local prosecutors. Prosecutors now can request help from the attorney general if needed. The measure would expire in 2023, a year before Gardner and Schmitt are up for reelection.

The measure still needs approval from the House, which hasn’t yet referred a similar bill to committee. That’s a strong signal of lack of support in that chamber.

Republican critics of Gardner blame her in part for a recent surge in homicides in the city and say she needs the attorney general's help.

“The murder rate is definitely skyrocketing this year,” suburban St. Louis Sen. Andrew Koenig said Wednesday during debate on the bill. “I think the reason why is that criminals think they can get away with stuff.”

Republican Gov. Mike Parson asked lawmakers to pass the measure during a special session on crime after Gardner in July charged a white couple with felony unlawful use of a weapon for displaying guns during a racial injustice protest outside their mansion.

The charges against Mark and Patricia McCloskey also angered President Donald Trump. Parson has said he spoke with Trump about Gardner's decision and told the president that it’s difficult to remove an elected official from office in Missouri, though he didn’t say if Trump had asked if Gardner could be removed.

Parson on Thursday said the policy has become “another political issue.”

“There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Hey, I need a little to help to take murderers off the street,'" he told reporters.

That wasn't the first time Gardner clashed with top Republicans.

In 2018, she charged then-Gov. Eric Greitens with felony invasion of privacy. The charge accused Greitens of taking a compromising photo of a woman during an extramarital affair and threatening to post it if she spoke of their relationship.

Greitens admitted to the affair but denied that he committed a crime. The charge was later dropped. But Greitens, who also was facing unrelated ethics complaints, resigned in June 2018.

St. Louis Democratic Sen. Jamilah Nasheed said Gardner has faced particularly harsh criticism as a Black woman and that some Republicans unhappy with her decisions are trying to take power away from her.

“This is about a young African American female who dared to challenge a Republican governor of a wrongdoing and bad behavior," Nasheed said.

But suburban St. Louis Republican Sen. Bob Onder during debate on the bill said Gardner is wasting time on “political prosecutions." He's called her incompetent and soft on crime.

“She is not doing her job,” said Onder, who led the push for the bill. “She’s too busy prosecuting the McCloskeys and the former governor while children are dying.”

Despite criticism, voters picked Gardner over the city’s former lead homicide prosecutor during an August primary. She is heavily favored to win the November general election in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.

Democrats argue that Republicans now are trying to undermine Gardner and the vote of St. Louis residents in support of her.

“It's an attack and affront on Democracy and the voters in St. Louis and across Missouri,” Kansas City Democratic Sen. Lauren Arthur said.

Leaders of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys in a Thursday statement described the bill as a “miscarriage of justice."

“The arguments used to prop up this bill apply equally to any jurisdiction and any political office," according to a statement signed by the association's board members. “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?”

Passing the measure in the Senate was an ordeal.

Work in the Senate stalled for hours as supporters of the bill brought back another Republican lawmaker who had already left Jefferson City in order to get the numbers to advance the legislation. A vote to use a combative procedural maneuver to force a vote on the bill divided Republicans.

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Associated Press writer Jim Salter contributed to this report from O'Fallon, Missouri.