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Victims wait for justice as thousands of St. Louis City cases remain in limbo

“It was just heartbreaking to see my son lifeless at eight months”
Published: May. 19, 2022 at 5:57 AM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Thousands of local criminal cases are sitting in legal limbo with victims waiting for justice while the people accused of committing the crimes are walking free.

“It was just heartbreaking to see my son lifeless at eight months,” says Josephine Cotton through her tears.

Cotton and her family are still grieving months after losing her son Jyhaad to a drug overdose, while the baby was in the care of a relative. The St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office has the information, Jyhaad’s father Joseph Cotton stressed “they need to do something!”

Jyhaad’s death occurred last year, but to date, no charges and no justice. It cannot go unpunished, Joseph insists. There must be some accountability somewhere.

It’s the kind of pain and frustration many in St Louis feel and they anxiously want answers and accountability after falling victim to crimes. But experts say new data obtained by News 4 revealed an alarming problem with the criminal justice system in St. Louis.

“With so many cases listed as pending application is a huge problem,” says Criminology Professor Richard Rosenfeld. “It needs to be addressed immediately.” Rosenfeld has studied crime in St. Louis for decades and admits he has never seen a backlog of cases as bad as today’s.

Here’s what we are talking about, cases referred to as pending application of warrant or “PAWS”. They’re criminal cases St. Louis police have solved, IDed a suspect, and brought to the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office (CAO) for charges. In the past, officers would apply in person in the warrant office in the St. Louis City courthouse. But at the start of the pandemic, the prosecutor’s office went to an email system instead and still has not returned to normal operations.

After News 4′s Investigative Team received a tip about a massive backlog of cases just sitting at the Circuit Attorney’s Office and going nowhere, we started making requests. The police department acknowledges a “notable” increase in the number of PAW cases. So, just how many? More than 4,400 cases. An astonishing number to Professor Rosenfeld.

“No justice for victims,” Rosenfeld says. “I thought, this cannot be true. Can’t be true. There’s got to be a mistake here.”

But there is no mistake. In fact, the list is so long that if you laid the pages down, one by one, they’d span the length of a football field. That’s startling to the professor.

“Even if it’s half, 2,000 pending warrants, that’s still many, many too many,” he says.

News 4 asked the CAO for an interview, but they declined. Instead, they sent a brief statement, saying they “went fully remote to protect the safety of our staff and our police partners.”

Adding they are working closely with the police to process PAW cases that “target low-level, non-violent offenders and focus the C.A.O.s resources on the most serious and violent crimes.”

But Rosenfeld says the CAO. should be more forthcoming.

“This issue about less serious more serious bothers me,” he argues.

His brief review of the list, obtained by News 4 from a police source, shows high-level felonies. Since they’re not charged, many of the suspects are allowed to walk free.

“I don’t think the public is aware that there could be over 4,000 applications for warrants on some very serious offenses that are in legal purgatory,” Rosenfeld says.

Some of the cases date back nearly two years.

“There is no excuse for having an application be in pending status for that long,” Rosenfeld asserts. He wonders if it’s a lack of staff in the office - a problem resulting from an exodus of prosecutors from Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office.

Ed Postawko knows just what it takes to run the warrant office. He did it for a decade from 2007 to 2017.

“I don’t know how they are going to make up for 4,000 cases because each of those cases has to be reviewed individually and just the raw number. That’s a lot of cases.,” Postawko says.

He says he’s never heard of a backup so bad.

“Sometimes we would get a little backed up, but a little backed up would mean sometimes a couple of dozen,” Postawko continues.

After repeated requests spanning nearly a month, the Circuit Attorney’s Office hadn’t provided an interview but said, “It certainly sends up signal flairs that there is a problem.”

Postawko said it’s something they should take very seriously.

“Who are those 4,000 suspects? Are some of them dangerous to the community?,” He questioned.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department sent a statement in response.

Still, these cases are in legal limbo and it’s not clear if anyone at the Circuit Attorney’s Office has ever even looked at most or all of them.

As a point of comparison, however, we did ask other counties about how many cases they have currently under review. St. Louis County said it couldn’t provide the data, because they are still a mixture of digital and paper files.

St. Charles County could, though. They have approximately 640 cases under review.

Jackson County, where Kansas City is located, has about 1,700 hundred cases under review. Again, that’s less than half of what St. Louis has on the paw list.

Meanwhile, cops tell News 4 that even some suspects are saying, ‘Oh, it’s no big deal, I will just be PAW’ed.”

And in fact, from our review of the list, there are some people who have been arrested, released, arrested again for a different crime and released again.