The Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City heard arguments Wednesday on whether to stiffen penalties for assistant St. Louis Circuit Attorneys involved in the 2014 cover up an illegal police assault in the city.
The action has been brought by the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel which was established by the Supreme Court to investigate allegations of misconduct by lawyers. Chief Disciplinary Counsel Alan Pratzel and Deputy Chief Sam Phillips have rejected recommendations by a hearing panel of two attorneys and a layperson to reprimand, but not further penalize two of the assistant circuit attorneys.
Those attorneys, Ambry Schuessler and Katherine Dierdorf, admitted to withholding their knowledge of a police detective’s beating of a suspect and of a fellow Assistant Circuit Attorney’s filing of false charges against the suspect.
Assistant Circuit Attorney Bliss Worrell, who was a close friend of Detective Thomas Carroll, filed trumped-up charges of attempted escape against the suspect, Michael Waller, in an attempt to cover up Carroll’s assault of him. Waller was accused of breaking into the car of Carroll’s daughter and was found with her stolen credit card.
The Disciplinary Counsel’s office is seeking to have Schuessler and Dierdorf suspended from practicing law – Diedorf for three years and Schuessler for two years – for ethical violations and impeding the criminal investigation of Detective Carroll’s assault.
Carroll received a 52-month prison sentence in federal court for his actions. Worrell was given 18 months probation and was disbarred by the Missouri Supreme Court.
According to court documents, as Assistant Circuit Attorneys in St. Louis in 2014, Schuessler, Dierdorf, and Worrell had become friends and spent time mingling with each other.
The morning after Detective Carroll assaulted Waller, Schuessler and Worrell listened on the speaker of Worrell’s phone as Carroll described punching Waller in the face, hitting him in the back with a chair, and sticking a gun in his mouth. Court documents say that upon hearing Carroll’s remarks, Schuessler cracked an ill-advised joke by saying, “I bet that’s not the first big black thing he’s had in his mouth.”
That afternoon, Worrell filed the false charges against suspect Waller.
The next day, Schuessler found out about the charges and accompanied another assistant circuit attorney to inform supervisors of Worrell’s activity.
But according to court documents filed by the Disciplinary Counsel’s office, Schuessler didn’t fully disclose her knowledge of Detective Carroll’s assault to her supervisors or to the police department’s Internal Affairs division in the following days, but only did so the next month in an initial interview with the FBI and assistant United States Attorney, Hal Goldsmith, who had launched a federal investigation at the request of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.
The Disciplinary Counsel’s court filing also contends Schuessler only told the full truth and admitted to making the “joke” in reference to Detective Carroll sticking the gun in suspect Waller’s mouth during a second interview with Goldsmith and the FBI. In her first meeting with the federal officials, she said Carroll made the joke. The court filing says Schuessler’s joke is an arguably racist and homophobic slur about the suspect, which constitutes professional misconduct under Missouri Supreme Court Rules.
During Wednesday’s hearing before the Supreme Court, Chief Disciplinary Counsel Special Representative Marc Rapp said Schuessler’s joke raises questions about her ability to prosecute hate crimes.
“How can we be sure that she’s going to objectively consider race and sexual orientation in making her official charging duties,” Lapp said.
He claimed Schuessler’s dishonesty interfered with the criminal investigation of Detective Carroll and jeopardized his prosecution. Rapp said the fact that she lied on three occasions regarding the use of a gun damaged her credibility during the sentencing phase of Detective Carroll’s trial.
Court documents filed on behalf of Schuessler state that she was consistent in her description of Carroll’s assault on the suspect, including Carroll’s use of a gun during the assault, and that she was not representing a client when she made her “flippant, bad” joke. Those documents also contend her joke is not subject to regulation, a statement in line with the recommendations of the three-person hearing panel.
Before the judges Wednesday, attorney Justin Gelfand said Schuessler quickly acted as a whistleblower on the assault of a suspect by law enforcement and on prosecutorial misconduct.
“Charges were dropped against an innocent man for a crime he did not commit, and a detective was found guilty and sentenced to federal prison for a serious and horrible crime that he did commit,” said Gelfand.
Excluding the ill-advised joke, the Disciplinary Counsel has made similar complaints about the conduct of Dierdorf as it has about Schuessler but additionally contends Dierdorf failed to admit when she had full knowledge of the assault and attempted coverup until several weeks after Schuessler had confessed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Goldsmith concluded in his investigation that Dierdorf “time-shifted,” by making it appear that both she and Worrell did not know about Detective Carroll’s assault until two days after the fact, which would actually be a day after Worrell issued the false charges. Goldsmith said that action impeded his investigation.
The Disciplinary Counsel’s court documents further differentiate between the conduct of Schuessler and Dierdorf, stating that after initially not disclosing Worrell’s false charges to supervisors, Dierdorf instructed Schuessler to also keep quiet.
Before the Supreme Court judges Wednesday, Chief Disciplinary Counsel Alan Pratzel said Dierdorf’s actions are inexcusable.
“To me, it’s the height of misconduct too, in that position of being a prosecutor to lie, to cover up for another prosecutor’s illegal criminal conduct,” said Pratzel.
The Disciplinary Counsel contends Dierdorf ended up lying out of an irresponsible and dangerous sense of loyalty to her friend, Worrell.
Conversely, court documents filed on behalf of Dierdorf say evidence directly contradicts the Disciplinary Counsel’s contention that she instructed Ms. Schuessler to lie, or that she herself lied to federal investigators. The documents contend Dierdorf made efforts to reach her supervisors, correct her prior omissions, and make a full disclosure, both at meetings and through voicemail during the week of the assault and attempted coverup, and the following week. The documents noted she was finally able to make a full disclosure to the FBI and the assistant U.S. Attorney weeks later.
The Court documents supporting Dierdorf acknowledge that during two interviews, she held back or changed certain facts to avoid implying her friend Ms. Worrell had filed criminal charges.
Both Dierdorf and Schuessler claim to have suffered after losing their jobs at the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office. Both contend that they had no prior discipline and no disciplinary issues since. Schuessler now works for a Clayton law firm, and Dierdorf is a public defender in Denver, Colorado.
Arguing on behalf of Dierdorf before the Supreme Court Wednesday, Attorney Michael Downey noted she applied to be a public defender before accepting a position in the Circuit Attorney’s Office.
“It’s very clear that she only went to work at the Circuit Attorney’s Office because she couldn’t get a job as a public defender,” said Downey.
Dierdorf further claims her involvement in the matter resulted in hostile media coverage as she is the daughter of former St. Louis Cardinal football player, Football Hall of Fame Inductee, and sports announcer Dan Dierdorf.
After hearing arguments Wednesday, the Supreme Court could issue decisions at any time on whether further disciplinary action will be taken against Dierdorf and Schuessler.
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