Missouri prisoner’s innocence case puts new circuit attorney against attorney general

The newly-sworn in circuit attorney for the City of St. Louis likely has a looming court battle with the state’s attorney general.
Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 6:50 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - The newly-sworn in circuit attorney for the City of St. Louis likely has a looming court battle with the state’s attorney general.

Gabe Gore was selected by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to serve as the circuit attorney for St. Louis. Parson also selected Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey.

Before Kim Gardner resigned as St. Louis circuit attorney, she filed a motion to get Chris Dunn’s innocence case heard before a judge. Dunn, 51, was sentenced to life in prison for the 1990 murder of Recco Rogers in North St. Louis. The two teenage eyewitnesses in the case later recanted their testimony and admitted they lied. A judge in 2020 acknowledged Dunn would likely not be convicted by a jury today, but couldn’t free Dunn because the courts can only vacate sentences for claims of freestanding innocence for death row inmates in Missouri.

In 2021, Missouri lawmakers created an avenue for all inmates, by passing a law that allows prosecutors to petition to the courts to get inmates’ cases heard before a judge again. Gardner used this avenue to get Lamar Johnson’s sentence vacated in February. But with Gardner’s departure, new circuit attorney Gore will have to oversee Dunn’s case since the petition has been filed in court.

The CAO will be assisted by Dunn’s lawyers, which includes the Midwest Innocence Project. Dunn’s lawyer will face the AG’s Office, which has opposed innocence claims for decades in Missouri.

Gov. Parson has ignored calls to pardon Dunn.

“From a legal perspective, I will look at the issue and consider whether or not I have conflict of interest--that happens all the time in prosecuting attorneys’ offices,” Gore told News 4 Wednesday. “If I don’t have a conflict of interest, based on my analysis, then I’m going to go forward with the case like we always do, and if you’re asking me whether I’m going to take political considerations into account in making my decisions, that’s something I’m not ever going to do.”

Gore would have to ask a judge to dismiss Dunn’s case, if the CAO doesn’t want move forward with the case.

“We just really believe that anyone who looks at this case, and looks at it clearly and openly, will come to the right conclusion,” said Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director for the Midwest Innocence Project. “Are there people who are still waiting for assistance in Missouri that are actually innocent? The answer is, undoubtedly, yes. When it comes to opposition to the cases that we’re bringing, we certainly see the fiercest opposition in Missouri.”

MIP represented Lamar Johnson and Kevin Strickland, the only two Missouri prisoners freed following the 2021 law allowing prosecutors to ask courts to hear innocence cases for prisoners.

Bushnell pointed to innocence case studies that show roughly 4% of all U.S. prisoners are innocent.

“There are hundreds of conviction integrity units now around the country and the vast majority of them don’t exonerate anyone,” Bushnell added.