St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner on Monday filed what she called an unprecedented federal civil rights lawsuit, accusing the city, the local police union and others of a coordinated and racist conspiracy aimed at forcing her out of office.
Photo: Jim Salter/Associated Press
Photo: Jim Salter/Associated Press

Prosecutor sues her own city under law passed to fight the KKK

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner accuses officials of a ‘racially motivated conspiracy’

St. Louis’ first African American prosecutor has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against her own city under a little-used federal law passed in the wake of the Civil War to stem violence by the Ku Klux Klan. 

Kimberly Gardner, the St. Louis circuit attorney, accuses city officials, the local police union and a special prosecutor of a “racially motivated conspiracy to deny the civil rights of racial minorities by obstructing a government official’s efforts to ensure equal justice under law for all.” 

Her lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, follows what she describes as a coordinated campaign to block her efforts to crack down on police corruption and misconduct, and to institute much-needed changes in the city’s criminal justice system. 

She is in effect asking for a federal judge to step inside the workings of the city and the local court system to stop her civil rights from being violated under the Constitution and an 1871 law commonly called the Ku Klux Klan Act, which criminalized efforts to re-enslave African Americans. 

More recently, the law has been wielded in a lawsuit against the promoters of the 2017 white power rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, accusing them of a conspiracy to commit violence against a racial minority. 

Gardner has been at war with much of the St. Louis police force and the local legal establishment since she was elected in 2016, two years after nearby Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in protest over the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer.

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The St. Louis police force is mistrusted by many in the African American community, which makes up half the city’s population. 

Gardner took several steps to make the police department more accountable, including creating a list of more than 50 officers who could not bring cases for prosecution to her office because of concerns over their credibility. 

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She also indicted the state’s governor at the time, Eric Greitens, who had been a rising star in national Republican politics. 

Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens resigned in 2018 after it was revealed he had an extramarital affair. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner indicted Greitens, who had been a rising star in national Republican politics. The charge of felony invasion of privacy was later dismissed.
Photo: Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Greitens announced his resignation on May 29, 2018, bowing to months of pressure amid a scandal tied to an extramarital relationship and the threat of impeachment.

The business manager of the local police union, Jeff Roorda, has called for Gardner’s indictment, and he recently went on a radio show to suggest that she be removed from office “by force or by choice.” Roorda, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, did not respond to a call seeking comment. 

Gardner is also being pursued by a special prosecutor, Jerry Carmody, who began investigating her in 2018 after Greitens’ lawyers accused her of allowing the perjury of a former FBI agent whom she hired to investigate the governor. Gardner has said she did nothing wrong, and that she corrected the former agent’s errors as soon as she learned about them. She later dismissed the case against Greitens. 

Carmody also did not return a call seeking comment. 

Jacob Long, a spokesman for the St. Louis mayor’s office, said: “The city of St. Louis vehemently denies what it considers to be meritless allegations levied against it by Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. The city fully expects to be vindicated.” 

In an interview, Gardner said the lawsuit was about making sure she was allowed to implement the platform she was elected on. 

“We’re not going to let fear and injustice stop the reforms that are needed,” Gardner said. “This is also about the continuing attacks on progressive prosecutors, not just in St. Louis, but around this country.” 

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, center, speaks at a rally outside the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in St. Louis on Tuesday, with several other African American female prosecutors in support of Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner in her efforts to reform the criminal justice system and her suit against the St. Louis police union among others.
Photo: Christian Gooden/Associated Press

Carmody has said his investigation of Gardner is continuing, which she has described as a way to limit her effectiveness by keeping a cloud of uncertainty over her future. 

As evidence of a conspiracy against her, Gardner’s lawsuit notes that one of Greitens’ chief defense lawyers is a longtime friend of Carmody, creating what she called a conflict of interest that made him an improper choice to investigate her. He was appointed by a state judge at the request of the city’s police force after a complaint was filed by the governor’s legal team. 

Peter Joy, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said that although the Ku Klux Klan Act dates to the 19th century, it has been employed more recently, including during the Civil Rights era to try to stop Southern sheriffs from blocking African Americans from voting. 

But proving a violation in St. Louis would require a significant amount of evidence, he said. “It’s a pretty high bar to clear.”

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