St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, who this month announced she would resign effective June 1, is leaving office immediately, ending a turbulent tenure marked by frequent criticism, especially from Missouri's Republican leaders. Gardner said she has been working with suburban St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell on the transition so his office can take over city cases “to prioritize public safety.” She didn’t explain why the transition was happening sooner than expected. the sudden announcement caught Bell and his staff off guard, uncertain of who was in charge of prosecuting cases in the city, reports Courthouse News Service. “Her unexpected resignation has put us in kind of a gray area,” said Bell’s spokesman, Chris King. Bell was waiting to hear from the St. Louis presiding judge or Gov. Mike Parson on how to proceed. Gardner, a Democrat, had been facing an ouster effort by Missouri's attorney general and was under scrutiny from Republican-led state lawmakers when she announced May 4 that she would leave effective June 1.
Gardner was elected in 2016 to become the city's first Black circuit attorney, or chief prosecutor. She was part of a movement of progressive prosecutors who sought diversion to mental health treatment or drug abuse treatment for low-level crimes, pledged to hold police more accountable, and proactively sought to free inmates who were wrongfully convicted. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey filed a lawsuit in February seeking Gardner's ouster on three grounds: failure to prosecute existing cases; failure to file charges in cases brought by police; and failure to confer with and inform victims and their families about the status of cases.
Gardner said Bailey's attack on her was politically and racially motivated. Meanwhile, the Missouri House weighed a bill that would allow the governor to appoint a special prosecutor in St. Louis to handle violent crimes, effectively removing the bulk of Gardner’s responsibilities. The bill was set aside after Gardner's resignation. Like Gardner, Bell has taken steps such as halting prosecution of low-level drug crimes, and establishing a separate unit to review possible wrongful convictions and allegations of police misconduct.
Bell “has been on the phone with every prosecuting attorney, every district attorney in the region” to try and help stabilize the St. Louis office, King said.