July 15, 2024
Kim Gardner blames attorney on leave for office’s no-show in murder trial

st. LOUIS — St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner responded Friday to a judge’s threat to hold her in contempt of court by blaming an attorney for not telling her office he had a trial slated to begin while he was on leave.

The filing says prosecutor Alex Polta, who has been on approved leave since early April, failed to warn Gardner’s office about a murder trial that was set to begin last Monday.

No one attended the first day of trial in Polta’s place, and Judge Scott A. Millikan filed an order for Gardner’s office to show cause for why she should not be held in criminal contempt, arguing: “This conduct thwarts and defeats the authority of the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis.”

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Despite Gardner’s claim, the court sends weekly notices for upcoming trials to judges, attorneys and the circuit attorney’s office, among others. Monday’s trial was not included in an earlier version of the notice, but it was added to the most recent one, sent on April 12.

Gardner’s filing says its chief warrant officer “did not expect the list to be supplemented with new” filings for this past Monday.

The embattled prosecutor’s office has faced years of criticism for organizational dysfunction and understaffing. Cases have been regularly dropped and refiled because prosecutors weren’t ready for trial, and Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey filed a suit in February to remove Gardner from office.

Last week, a trial date was tentatively scheduled for late September in Bailey’s removal lawsuit.

A court hearing is set for Monday morning on the contempt accusation.

In Gardner’s contempt response, filed late Friday, she calls for Polta to attend Monday’s hearing. Since Gardner was not prosecuting the case himself, the filing argued, she should not be held in contempt of court.

She argued that “inaccurate and uncorrected statements” from Polta “were the primary cause of the CAO not timely realizing this matter was set for trial on April 17 and not having an attorney (either Mr. Polta or someone else) appear for or seek to continue that trial.”

Jonathon Jones, 18, was slated to face trial on charges he fatally shot a man in 2021 near the Gateway Arch. The victim, 29-year-old Brandon Scott, was found dead inside a vehicle on the steps leading to the Arch grounds, according to court documents.

Polta told the prosecutor’s office he was taking leave in early April, but it is unclear whether he was sick or vacation time. He said he had no trials or depositions coming up, according to text messages between Gardner and Chris Hinckley, chief warrant officer for the circuit attorney’s office. The texts are included in Gardner’s response.

Hinckley determined that Polta did have upcoming trials, according to the filing, and contacted him for clarification. Polta provided information about some of the cases but did not mention Jones’ trial. As far as the circuit attorney’s office knew, according to the filing, that trial had been continued.

“No one appeared for trial,” the filing reads, “because, with the possible exception of Mr. Polta, no one in CAO was aware” that the trial was still scheduled for Monday. Had anyone known, it said, “they would have appeared, designated someone else to appear, or otherwise taken steps to address that trial setting in an appropriate fashion.”

Polta declined to comment Saturday afternoon. According to the filing, he plans to be at Monday’s contempt hearing.

Kimberly Gardner is the first Black St. Louis circuit attorney. She was first elected in 2016. A brief look at her career and controversies. Video by Beth O’Malley