When can the Missouri attorney general step in to prosecute a case that a local prosecutor can’t or won’t?
The answer is told in a tale of two cases.
In one case, Attorney General Eric Schmitt refiled criminal charges earlier this month against three men involved in the 2018 duck boat sinking that killed 17 at Table Rock Lake. The AG stepped in to file the charges after a Stone County judge ruled the local prosecutor lacked sufficient evidence.
Yet, Schmitt’s office was powerless to file charges in the case of police officers in St. Louis who said a man wielded a gun at them in their vehicle March 19 – an incident described as an attempted carjacking.
Charges of first-degree robbery, armed criminal action and resisting arrest had been recommended by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Yet, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office not only refused to prosecute the suspect to the fullest extent of the law, but later claimed the officers were lying about what happened.
Gardner’s office only charged the suspect with unlawful use of a weapon, despite the fact that he was facing prior charges of domestic assault, violating an order of protection and first-degree property damage at the time of the incident.
The reason for the stark difference in cases: In Missouri, the attorney general can’t step in to prosecute a criminal case unless the local prosecutor requests it. Thus, Missouri’s strict legal separation of state and local prosecutors allows criminals off the hook if a soft-on-crime local prosecutor refuses to press charges.
Some may have hoped Schmitt would jump on the St. Louis case to make sure the perpetrator was promptly prosecuted. But the progressive Gardner would have had to request Schmitt to do so, and was not so inclined.
That was not the situation in the duck boat case, where the local prosecutor welcomed Schmitt’s aid.
“The Stone County Prosecuting Attorney asked for our assistance and the governor approved the assist role,” the AG’s Press Secretary Chris Nuelle told The Heartlander. “Following the dismissal of the charges, and since we were already in an assist role, the Stone County Prosecuting Attorney deferred to our office on refiling of charges, which we did. In the St. Louis case, we were not invited in by (Circuit Attorney) Gardner. Simple as that.”
The three men charged in the duck boat deaths are the pilot, Kenneth Scott McKee, as well as crew members Curtis Lanham and Charles Baltzell – all accused of neglecting passenger safety.
On July 19, 2018, the “Ride the Ducks” amphibious tour vehicle sank during a tour after crew members allegedly ignored an incoming storm. There were 31 passengers and crew aboard when the vessel sank.
In 2019, a grand jury indicted the three men on charges of criminal negligence and misconduct. Federal charges were dismissed when a judge ruled that the Justice Department did not have jurisdiction in the case.
Schmitt, a candidate for U.S. Senate, brought 63 counts against the men just days after the Stone County judge dismissed the local prosecutor’s charges against them. The charges against the three men include negligence and involuntary manslaughter.
“As I’ve said previously, my office is committed to fighting for justice on behalf of the 17 people that were tragically killed in 2018 — that’s why we refiled the charges in this case,” Schmitt said in a statement.
As for the inability of the attorney general to file a criminal case when a local prosecutor won’t, changing that situation would require a change in the laws.