Jackson County prosecutor sees politics in governor's move

Mike Genet
A gavel rests on a judge's bench.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says Gov. Mike Parson’s effort to have the state's attorney general prosecute some homicide cases in the city of St. Louis is a case of personal politics, and something local prosecutors have fought against for many years.

During an ongoing General Assembly special session, Parson has asked state lawmakers to approve legislation that gives Attorney General Eric Schmitt powers to assist St. Louis Circuit Prosecutor Kim Gardner with homicide cases there, an idea called “concurrent jurisdiction.”

In a statement released Wednesday morning, Baker said the request “smacked of politics as the source of the inspiration, rather than the usual arrogance and overstated belief in their capacity and skills.”

Baker said Schmitt wants people to believe he has “special powers” in an area where he hasn’t built community trust and doesn’t have a relationship with police or judiciary. Both Parson and Schmitt have said they see the idea as helping Gardner but also said she has not requested help.

Baker said she can recall other instances during years as an assistant prosecutor and elected prosecutor when the idea of concurrent jurisdiction popped up.

“Each time it was soundly defeated because all locally elected prosecutors, Republicans and Democrats alike, urban, rural and suburban, banded together in order to defeat this dangerous concept,” she said. “The reason we band together is pretty simple. Concurrent jurisdiction interjects politics into our system.”

Baker, who recently stepped down as state chairperson of the Missouri Democratic Party, is running for a third full term as county prosecutor in November. She is opposed by Tracy Chappell, the Blue Springs city prosecutor. Gardner, in her first term, won her primary race last week and faces a Republican challengers in November

While elected prosecutors must choose a party, Baker acknowledged, “that is not the kind of politics that comes to play with concurrent jurisdiction. This type of politics is personal.”

Baker said the city of St. Louis has had 163 homicides in 2020, with suspects arrested in 44 cases. Gardner has filed charges in 34 of those cases.

“One should not presume that the other 10 murder cases will never be filed,” Baker said. “It is not uncommon for a prosecutor to ask for additional work to be done on a case in order to get to proof beyond a reasonable doubt and to be sure we are getting it right. That’s how it works.”

Baker then said the attorney general has “no special powers to help build more evidence for police,” and that his powers actually are diminished because he doesn’t have the community presence she says Gardner offers.

The county prosecutor said she hopes Schmitt could simply support Gardner under their long-standing roles.

“No new special law is needed,” she said. “The attorney general simply could pick up the phone, call Ms. Gardner and ask, ‘How can I help you?’”