O'FALLON, Mo. (KMOV.com/AP) — U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley on Thursday urged Attorney General William Barr to launch a federal civil rights investigation of St. Louis' elected prosecutor, accusing her of abuse of power in her investigation of a couple who wielded guns while defending their home during a protest.

Mark and Patricia McCloskey are under Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner's scrutiny for the June 28 confrontation when several hundred protesters marched by their $1.15 million mansion. The couple accused protesters of knocking down an iron gate marked with “No Trespassing” and “Private Street” signs.

[Related: St. Louis police apply for warrants in McCloskey case, but no charges have been filed]

The McCloskeys, both in their 60s, emerged with weapons — him with a long-barreled gun, her with a small handgun.

Their actions, captured on video and viewed by millions, drew praise from some who said they were legally defending their home, but scorn from others who said they risked bloodshed by displaying the weapons. Photos emerged as memes on both sides of the gun debate.

Gardner's office is still investigating, but no charges have been filed. Hawley, a Missouri Republican, wrote in a letter to Barr that Gardner abused her power in seizing the couple's guns, investigating them and pursuing a possible indictment. He called her actions “an unacceptable abuse of power and threat to the Second Amendment.”

“There is no question under Missouri law that the McCloskeys had the right to own and use their firearms to protect themselves from threatened violence, and that any criminal prosecution for these actions is legally unsound,” Hawley wrote. "The only possible motivation for the investigation, then, is a politically motivated attempt to punish this family for exercising their Second Amendment rights.”

Gardner, in a statement, said, “I am deeply disappointed that a U.S. Senator would intervene in a local matter that is under investigation.”

St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar, who is the president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said Hawley's call for a federal investigation of a Missouri prosecutor is unprecedented, and ultimately, it's up to the voters to decide what kind of job prosecutors are doing.

He also said Gardner is in a tough position with this case.

"These are two amendments that people get extremely passionate about," he said, referring to the First Amendment and the Second Amendment. "But for a prosecutor in the State of Missouri, it comes down to deciding the law. And these are examples where we as prosecutors are sometimes. Faced with the prospect of having to make a very difficult decision that may not be a popular decision, for either group."

Hawley isn't the only high-level Republican to express concerns about Gardner's investigation. The case caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who spoke about it in a phone conversation with Gov. Mike Parson on Tuesday.

When he was in the Legislature, Parson co-authored Missouri's “castle doctrine” law that justifies deadly force for those who are defending their homes from intruders. He said the McCloskeys “had every right to protect their property.”

Several Black leaders in St. Louis have expressed support for Gardner. U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Democrat, said in a statement that he was appalled that Hawley “would attempt to interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation ... by asking our racist, incompetent President and his failed Attorney General ... to misuse the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division by intervening in this case.”

He said Barr has “long-since surrendered any allegiance to the rule of law.”

The Rev. Darryl Gray, who has led several protests, said Gardner's critics are creating a volatile situation.

“Kim has received death threats from all across this country and in the climate that this president has created, Mike Parson and Josh Hawley are simply piling on, and their comments only serve to fan the fires of hatred and discord in this country,” Gray said.

The case has received enormous coverage and has become a major political football. According to one expert on American politics, the McCloskeys' case is the latest example of how bitter politics has become.

"We all know it because we talk to our friends and so forth. And we all know that they're just not going to listen to the other side," said Dr. Ken Warren, a political science professor at Saint Louis University. "You know they've made up their minds. And mostly they're not going to change their minds because they're Republicans or Democrats and they're not going to at all see the other side."

Gardner, St. Louis' first Black circuit attorney, has been at odds with some in the St. Louis establishment since her election in 2016. Most notably, her office charged then-Gov. Eric Greitens with felony invasion of privacy in 2018 for allegedly taking a compromising photo of a woman during an extra-marital affair.

The charge was eventually dropped but Greitens resigned in June 2018.

Gardner hired a private investigator, former FBI agent William Tisaby, to investigate the claims against Greitens. Attorneys for Greitens accused Tisaby of lying during a deposition, and a judge indicted Tisaby for perjury in June 2019. Tisaby denied wrongdoing and his case is pending.

Gardner also has often butted heads with police leaders, especially after she developed an “exclusion list” of more than two dozen police officers who were barred from serving as primary witnesses in criminal cases over what Gardner called credibility concerns. The move angered Police Chief John Hayden, who also is Black.

In January, Gardner filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city, the local police union and others of a coordinated and racist conspiracy aimed at forcing her out of office. The lawsuit also accused “entrenched interests” of intentionally impeding her efforts to reform racist practices that have led to a loss of trust in the criminal justice system.

Gardner faces a challenge from Mary Pat Carl, a white former homicide prosecutor, in the Democratic primary on Aug. 4.

The McCloskeys are personal injury attorneys. Their home was initially incidental to the June 28 protest — it was simply on the route demonstrators were taking to the home of Mayor Lyda Krewson. The Democratic mayor drew the ire of activists for reading on Facebook Live the names and addresses of some who had called for defunding police.

St. Louis, like many cities across the country, has faced numerous demonstrations in the weeks since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, and some demonstrators have pushed for the reallocation of police funding, including a few who want the department to be completely abolished.

The McCloskeys' attorney, Albert Watkins, said they are longtime civil rights advocates and support the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. He said they grabbed their guns when two or three protesters — who were white — violently threatened the couple, their property and that of their neighbors.

A letter released July 1 by more than three dozen of the McCloskeys' neighbors condemned “the behavior of anyone who uses threats of violence, especially through the brandishing of firearms, to disrupt peaceful protest, whether it be in this neighborhood or anywhere in the United States.”

Copyright 2020 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved

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