Criminal cover up in St. Louis reveals “frighteningly close relationship between police and prosecutors”
Three former prosecutors and one former intern employed by the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office have admitted to helping a police detective cover up his assault of a handcuffed suspect.
All have resigned or been dismissed. One, Bliss Barber Worrell, recently pleaded guilty to helping conceal a crime, a felony. She was sentenced to probation and disbarred by the Missouri Supreme Court. The other three face uncertain disciplinary action that could include disbarment.
Jennifer Joyce, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney at the time the cover up occurred, has called the scandal “the worst thing that’s happened to me in 20 years as a prosecutor.”
The precipitating incident occurred in July 2014. St. Louis Police Detective Thomas A. Carroll allegedly attacked a handcuffed Thomas Waller after he was arrested for stealing a credit card that belonged to Carroll’s daughter. Waller claimed that Carroll put a gun to his head, bruised his ribs, chipped his teeth, bloodied his lip, and likely caused his concussion.
In order to explain Waller’s injuries, Carroll reached out to Worrell, a prosecutor in the Circuit Attorney’s Office. She has since admitted to filing false charges against Waller, claiming that his injuries were incurred during an escape attempt. She also admitted to lying to her supervisors and to a judge.
The cover up eventually unraveled internally and was reported to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. An investigation conducted by the FBI, police internal affairs, and the Circuit Attorney’s Office found that two other prosecutors, Ambry Schuessler and Katherine Dierdorf, and an intern, Caroline Rutledge, also participated in the cover up.
According to disciplinary documents, “each of the respondents failed to disclose their knowledge of Carroll’s assault and Worrell’s involvement in the issuing of charges, and each was untruthful at different times in the sequence of events to either the OCA supervisors, the Internal Affairs Officers or to the FBI and the United States Attorney’s Office.” All three have admitted to lying about their knowledge of the cover up.
The case is noteworthy in part because prosecutors and police rarely face such serious criminal sanctions for misconduct. Carroll was charged and subsequently pleaded guilty to violating Waller’s civil rights, although he insisted he had not put a gun in Waller’s mouth. U.S. District Judge Henry Autry rejected his denials, and, in July, sentenced him to 52 months in federal prison. (The city of St. Louis has already paid Waller $300,000 to settle a lawsuit he filed over Carroll’s action.) It was also Autry who sentenced Worrell to 18 months’ probation and community service, telling her that she’d left “a black mark on a very venerable office.”
Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University School of Law and contributor to In Justice Today, is heartened by the seriousness with which these actions have been taken by the courts. Nonetheless, he expressed alarm at “the very idea that Officer Carroll felt comfortable calling a prosecutor and essentially confessing to assault. This suggests that some police feel they are above the law — with the backing of their pals in the DA’s office.” Medwed believes this incident represents an extreme example of the “frighteningly close relationship between police and prosecutors.”