ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The St. Louis County prosecutor's office has launched a new program called "Community Case Review" in an effort to be more transparent. This comes at a time when there are calls across the country for more transparency and change to the criminal justice system.
"We realize a lot of people don't understand the mystery behind not only the prosecutor's office but also the criminal justice system," said County Prosecutor Wesley Bell.
Bell said the plan is to offer these opportunities monthly and discuss a different topic each time. March marked the first meeting where sexual assault was discussed. This week, prosecutors and victims' advocates were among those who volunteered to discuss homicide investigations.
"It was important for us to pull that curtain back and really work on that engagement and outreach so the public understands not only what we do but the why behind what we do," said Bell.
Tiffany Cook, an employee at Boeing, was among the dozen selected for the most recent community case review on homicide. She and the others were able to ask questions.
"This was one of the best classes I've ever been into," said Cook.
One of the challenges, Bell said, is that so many people have cellphones and are quick to grab them and start recording or sharing. In many cases, videos or pictures are posted to social media.
Bell said his office welcomes the witness accounts, that evidence can be very helpful, but it can also lead to people making snap judgments about the situation before they have all the facts. Bell calls social media a gift and a curse.
"You see a lot of things unfolding on social media, sometimes tragically but also it's not as easy, quite as simple to build a case," Bell said.
One of the most common questions Bell said he gets is why his office decides to file charges on certain cases. A lack of evidence or witnesses are two of the reasons.
He said his office typically receives between 8,000 to 9,000 cases from police every year. Of those, he said his office files charges on anywhere from 5,500 to 6,000.
"Just learning the background of what they're dealing with and how the community, what is important to help them solve cases is community, community helping each other," said Cook.
The next community case review is tentatively scheduled for May 16 at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton. Over 1,300 people signed up to participate in the first two community case reviews. The prosecutor's office hopes to pick about 35 people for May's meeting. People will be chosen on a first come, first served basis.
If you're interested in attending a course, you can contact the county prosecutor's office or email Captain Clay Farmer at CFarmer2@stlouisco.com.