Enough is enough': St. Louis circuit attorney defends lawsuit accusing 'racist conspiracy'

ABC News

ABC News(ST. LOUIS) -- Black elected prosecutors from across the country have come to the defense of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, saying her federal lawsuit against the city and its police union alleging a coordinated, racist conspiracy to drive her from office reflects a national trend.

Prosecutors from California to Baltimore said that, similar to Gardner, they've endured smear campaigns by police unions and experienced a status-quo mindset pervasive in local courts and government when attempts were made to push through criminal justice reforms.

Gardner told ABC News in an interview on Tuesday that the lawsuit isn't about her -- it's about constituents who want to see criminal justice reform in St. Louis that could level the playing field for minorities disproportionately affected by the current system.

"It's about the people, and that's why we have to fight. Enough is enough," Gardner said in an interview for "Nightline." "It's about being the first African American prosecutor in the city of St. Louis, running on a platform about bringing criminal justice reform, bringing equality to the criminal justice system."

Gardner, a registered nurse and a former funeral director, has managed to implement a diversion program for non-violent defendants caught up in the justice system due to drug addiction. Her office has also stopped prosecuting people for low-level marijuana possession.

But other reforms she proposed have been stymied, including wanting independent investigations of police-involved shootings.

"This is not about Kim Gardner," she added. "This is about certain individuals within these organizations that have gone beyond unprecedented amounts of coordination to stop the will of the people. I had no choice but to act for the will of the people because they want me to fight for what's right."

On Monday, Gardner, the first black woman elected as chief prosecutor in St. Louis, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and its police union alleging she's endured racist and illegal efforts from opponents to block reforms meant to benefit minorities.

The suit accuses the city and police union of violating the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, designed to combat white supremacy organizations. The suit also appears to mark the first time an elected local prosecutor has brought a federal case against the police union for racially motivated civil rights violations.

The suit, filed in the Eastern District of Missouri, claims to take aim at "entrenched interests" that Gardner said have tried to prevent her reforms through a "broad range of collusive conduct," including the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate her office.

The group of six black female prosecutors who went to St. Louis on Tuesday to rally support for Gardner said they can relate to her struggles to buck the tide in implementing criminal justice reforms.

"Quite candidly, Kim, like the others who stand before you today, has challenged the status quo and the keepers of the status quo don't like that, which is why she is being personally and professionally attacked," Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said at a news conference in St. Louis. "Every prosecutor here has had similar experiences to Kim."

Mosby said she endured death threats and protests when her office prosecuted six Baltimore police officers after the 2015 death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered a catastrophic spinal injury while in custody.

"We've lived through the personal, professional, ethical attacks on our competency and our leadership abilities, and, in many cases, still living through these attacks," she added. "Yet we are here to tell Kim and everyone else, we shall not only overcome but, collectively, we shall prevail in reforming the criminal justice system."

Mosby was joined by black female elected prosecutors from California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Florida, and Virginia standing in solidarity with Gardner. Other prosecutors from Washington, New York, Alabama, North Carolina and Illinois could not attend but sent words of support for Gardner.

"These conspired and concerted attacks are part of a national trend of a federal administration to silence and intimidate progressive prosecutors all across the country," Mosby said.

She and the other prosecutors cited a denouncement by U.S. Attorney General William Barr that prosecutors like Gardner are crusaders backed by liberal billionaire Geoge Soros and represent a danger to law enforcement.

Rachel Rollins, the Suffolk County district attorney in Massachusetts, whose jurisdiction includes Boston, said Gardner's reputation is being besmirched because she "dares to try and build a system that is just for everyone not just those with wealth, power and privilege."

"I know that one person can make a difference and change the system, but I also know that we can do it faster when we do it together," Rollins said.

Aramis Ayala, state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties in Florida, said she and the other elected prosecutors supporting Gardner in her legal fight "represent diversity in the profession and we represent diversity of thought that is new to our criminal justice system."

"Despite unprecedented attacks, we press on," Ayala said.

Gardner's lawsuit cites data from the state attorney general showing African Americans in Missouri are subjected to nearly twice as many traffic stops and arrests as whites.

Several racist social media posts allegedly made by Missouri police officers are also listed in the complaint. In one, a former police division officer allegedly "posted a photograph on Facebook of an African American police officer standing with two African American demonstrators, calling the officer 'Captain 'Hug a Thug' and a disgrace to the uniform.'"

In another, a lieutenant is accused of posting, "I'm not sure what the hell is going on in our country these days. I just drove by an authentic Mexican restaurant in town; and there were white guys putting on a new roof, cutting the grass and doing landscaping."

In another Facebook post, a Missouri officer wrote, according to the lawsuit, "Offered to sell a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, 'Black Lives Splatter, because Blue lives matter.'"

The lawsuit also alleges that the St. Louis Police Officers Association "has gone out of its way to support white officers accused of perpetrating acts of violence and excessive force against African American citizens," including the August 2014 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Darren Wilson.

Additionally, the SLPOA paid the bail of Jason Stockley, a white officer who shot and killed African American motorist Anthony Lamar Smith in December 2011, according to the lawsuit.

Gardner, who sought to launch several police reforms, including improving investigations of police misconduct in St. Louis, received threatening letters sent to her office that were "filled with racial invective," the lawsuit alleges. In some of the letters, Gardner was called racial slurs and various sexist expletives.

While Gardner's lawsuit portrays her as a victim of a racist police force and an entrenched power structure, she also has faced substantive accusations of incompetence after her office's indictment of former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens was dropped.

Gardner's former investigator, William Don Tisaby, also African American, has been charged with perjury and evidence tampering for his role in the Greitens' investigation. Gardner is scheduled to give a deposition in the Tisaby case on Wednesday.

The police union issued a statement calling Gardner's lawsuit "frivolous and without merit."

"The union believes this is a grand distraction meant to misdirect the attention that Gardner's deposition is sure to generate," said the statement from the union, which has renewed calls for Gardner, elected in 2016, to step down or "to be removed from office through any means available."

Jeff Roorda, the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, who's named as a defendant in Gardner's lawsuit and whom she described as a "divisive" individual, held a news conference on Tuesday to refute the prosecutor's allegations.

"Gardner essentially claims that her critics have conspired together to prevent her from doing her job as a prosecutor. Nothing could be further from the truth," Roorda said. "My police officers and I want her to do her job.

"We desperately want her to stand up for innocent victims, put dangerous criminals behind bars and respect the rule of law. She has not done her job, and this lawsuit demonstrates that she has no intention of doing her job, of doing the important work of defending the most vulnerable citizens in America's deadliest city."

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