ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Criminal justice experts say violent criminals are being found "not guilty" at an alarming rate in the city of St. Louis.
Former prosecutor-turned-defense-attorney Kristi Flint said the conviction rate at trial can be an excellent report card for a prosecutor's effectiveness.
“When I was a prosecutor, it was our stated goal to have an 80-85% conviction rate,” Flint said. News 4 gathered historical data that showed the Circuit Attorney's Office used to achieve guilty verdicts in approximately 72% of trials, on average.
But in recent years, that number has fallen sharply. Numbers we obtained from Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner's office showed that in 2018, prosecutors got guilty verdicts in just 51% of cases. In 2019, the trial conviction rate was 54%.
“If you are seeing your prosecutors losing half the time, you've got to ask yourself, what is going wrong here?” said Flint. In the most recent weeks, the rates have not improved.
In fact, analysis of court records shows that in the first two weeks of February, the Circuit Attorney's Office got a guilty verdict on only one out of four trials, a conviction rate of 25%.
Recent cases with "not guilty" verdicts include a murder and an assault. Gardner, who recently claimed in a federal lawsuit that there was a racist conspiracy to oust her from office, has often said she's faced challenges from the police and those wishing to harm her reform efforts.
But we wanted to know how Gardner’s office stacks up to her counterparts, so we did some research. In St. Louis County, where Wesley Bell took office just last year, had about a 65% percent trial conviction rate for 2019.
In St. Charles County, it was 72% for 2019. In Jackson County, covering Kansas City, it was 84.5% guilty at trial. In Marion County, covering Indianapolis, it was 70%.
From our research, the only number that came close to Gardner's conviction rate was from the counties in the Orlando, Florida area.
Their prosecutor, Aramis Ayala, has also claimed challenges as an African American woman in office and she recently stood with others in St. Louis to show support for Kim Gardner.
Her trial conviction rates for 2019: 60% in Orange County and 57% in Osceola County.
“Prosecutors are loathe to bring cases they don't think they can win in court,” said Professor Richard Rosenfeld with UMSL.
Rosenfeld said there could be two reasons why Gardner's numbers are so much lower than others.
Either they're taking tougher cases to trial, he said, or her prosecutors are overworked and overwhelmed.
“I don't know how you can say it is anything else other than inexperience,” Flint said.
Flint believes office turnover must be to blame.
Our recent review of the roster showed a significant decrease in the number of attorneys trying criminal cases in the last three years.
Only two current trial attorneys in the office have been there more than five years.
“Ultimately what this comes down to is the victims of crime are being represented in the courtroom by people without experience,” Flint said.
Flint said without a wealth of knowledge and experience to lean on in the office, winning cases is much harder.
“If I had a 50% when I was in that office, I would have a great amount of scrutiny from my supervisors. They would be looking at what is going wrong. Are you not preparing your cases? do you not have time?” Flint said.
But now that she's a defense attorney she said the word is getting out: defendants are far more likely to roll the dice and go to trial knowing right now there's a good chance they'll get out.
“I get to take advantage of that,” Flint said.
We wanted to interview Circuit Attorney Gardner for this story. Instead, we received a written statement from a spokesperson which defends the office and its prosecutors specifically, saying they work tirelessly to serve the people.
The statement says over 90% of cases are resolved outside the courtroom and, counting plea agreements the spokesperson says the overall conviction rate is 95%.
Still, the statement says: "the Circuit Attorney ran on a platform to reduce the number of cases unnecessarily charged in order to focus on the more difficult cases for trial."
On Wednesday, Gardner's office released a second statement to News 4 which read, in part, "Providing justice to the people of St. Louis is the priority of the CAO. The CAO tries more cases than any jurisdiction in the State of Missouri with a dedicated team of attorneys, led by Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. Our data doesn’t show a correlation or causation between experience and trial wins."
KMOV continued to seek additional answers from the Circuit Attorney's Office Wednesday night and will update this story as they are made available.