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St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner taps Missouri Attorney General to prosecute death penalty cases

Gardner's office has asked for help prosecuting case of former principal accused of hiring hitman to kill his pregnant girlfriend
Credit: AP

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has asked the Missouri Attorney General to prosecute three high-profile death penalty cases – a move that comes amid increasing criticism of how her office is handling cases.

The cases include Cornelius Green, a former St. Louis public school principal who has been accused of hiring a hitman to kill his pregnant girlfriend, a third-grade teacher in March 2016.

Green’s friend, Phillip Cutler, has also been charged with first-degree for the fatal shooting of Jocelyn Peters. Peters was seven months pregnant when she was killed in her Central West End apartment. Prosecutors from Gardner’s office filed a motion to have a special prosecutor assigned to Cutler’s case as well.

The third case Gardner’s office is seeking a special prosecutor to oversee is that of Ollie Lynch, who was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, three counts of first-degree assault, unlawful use of a weapon and six counts of armed criminal action after police say he opened fire on a car with five people in it, killing two of them, and critically wounding two others in 2018. Jalen Woods, 17, and Amber Green, 25, were killed as they were getting gas along Union Boulevard when two masked men opened fire on them with a rifle and a 9mm pistol. Detectives say one of those men was Lynch.

A spokeswoman for Gardner’s office said she had no official comment for this story.

Prosecutors from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office are expecting to take over the cases should a judge grant Gardner’s motion, according to a statement from Schmitt.

“The victims of these crimes and their families deserve justice,” Schmitt wrote. “We plan to take over these cases, prosecute them to the fullest extent, and finally deliver that much-awaited justice.

“We will never flinch or shy away from prosecuting violent crime.”

Assistant Circuit Attorney Chris Hinckley wrote in court documents that Gardner’s office has a potential conflict of interest in the cases, but the documents are under seal. So it’s unclear what the potential conflict is.

The move to seek a special prosecutor in the high-profile cases comes amidst growing criticism of Gardner’s office.

RELATED: Grand jury report rips St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner's office

Earlier this month, the I-Team reported the number of cases getting dismissed since Gardner took office just five years ago has doubled.

The I-Team also discovered the number of cases that have been dismissed during Gardner’s tenure continues to grow and is almost double the rate of dismissals in surrounding jurisdictions, according to the National Center for State Courts.

RELATED: Arrest made more than a year after 2 killed in shooting

The organization shows 33% of felony cases filed in St. Louis city’s circuit court get dismissed.

In St. Louis County, 15% of cases get dismissed.

In Jefferson County, it's 14%.

Seventeen percent of cases in St. Charles County get dismissed.

One of the cases that got dismissed included Brandon Campbell, who was accused of fatally shooting a man last year. A St. Louis judge wrote Gardner “abandoned her duties” to prosecute cases after her prosecutors did not show up for repeated hearings on the case. That led to Campbell’s release from jail, which the victim’s family learned from the I-Team even though state law requires victims be kept informed of developments of their loved ones cases.

RELATED: US Marshals arrest St. Louis man released after prosecutors failed to show up to hearings in murder trial

Marshals and St. Louis area police tracked Campbell down one week later at a home in Jennings – just blocks away from the victim’s family.

The I-Team reported Gardner’s Chief Homicide Prosecutor was on maternity leave when she was entered on the case, along with 28 others.

That prosecutor has since resigned.

Another judge recently rejected a plea deal Gardner’s prosecutors struck with a man who pleaded guilty to beating a man to death near the MetroLink Center at Grand Center in 2020, saying he didn’t understand how prosecutors could charge the case as involuntary manslaughter after originally issuing second-degree murder charges against the suspect. So, instead of accepting the eight-year deal, the judge sentenced Jarmond Johnson to 10 years in prison, which was the maximum sentence allowed by law on that charge.

The victim’s mother, Shirley Cobb-Washington, told the I-Team Gardner’s office did not keep her informed of the developments in the case and wrote letters to the judge begging him to reject the deal.

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Gardner's office has also asked for a special prosecutor to be appointed to handle the case against two men accused of killing former St. Louis Police Capt. David Dorn.

His widow, St. Louis Sgt. Ann Dorn, said she learned Gardner was seeking a special prosecutor from the I-Team, but added a member of Gardner's victim services unit left a message for her about the decision earlier Monday. 

"I appreciate, Gardner's office recognizing they need help," she said. "I appreciate the fact that they are admitting their limitations to see that justice is served, and victims are protected."