March 12, 2004 - The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Prosecutors Are Seeking Removal Of Judge From Cases
By Peter Shinkle, Post-Dispatch
St. Louis prosecutors are seeking to remove Circuit Judge Evelyn Baker from more than 150 criminal cases - and Baker is lashing back at what she says are their "ridiculous" sentencing recommendations.
According to lawyers familiar with the dispute, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce considers Baker too lenient and is signaling her frustration by seeking Baker's removal from a large number of cases.
Joyce refused Thursday to comment on Baker's sentencing practices or those of any judge.
"I request a change of judge when I believe it is in the best interest of justice, and the victims' and citizens' safety," she said.
Baker retorted: "That's such a joke. The safety of citizens. Whatever happened to the efficient and effective administration of justice?"
The judge said that the court system was already bogged down, and the requests for her disqualification will cause more delays. One of the cases involved dates to 1993, she noted.
"It's a disservice to taxpayers," the judge said. "People are sitting over there in that jail - that we're paying for - because their cases are not moving."
On Thursday, in hearings that dragged through the day, Baker granted about 46 of the disqualification motions and denied nine, she said.
Baker said the dispute appeared to stem from her disagreement with prosecutors on sentencing.
She often finds, she said, that prosecutors seek sentences that are "very high," particularly for first-time drug offenders involved in a nonviolent crime.
"Treatment is a lot cheaper than incarceration for an extended period of time," she said.
Asked for her perception of the sentencing recommendations she gets from the circuit attorney's office, Baker said: "Ridiculous."
She said that in one case, prosecutors recommended a 20-year sentence for an aging addict accused of possession of heroin and who had no record of violent crimes. In contrast, prosecutors recommended the minimum sentence, 10 years, for a "gangbanger" convicted of second-degree murder.
Baker said she adhered strictly to the state's sentencing guidelines, and she was also mindful of the fact that prisons were crowded with drug offenders.
Joyce said she was unaware of the specific cases the judge mentioned, noting that her office handles thousands. She said she would comment on them if the judge identified which ones. Baker said she handled too many cases to recall the names of the defendants she cited.
Joyce said her office used a committee to develop sentencing recommendations to ensure "consistency." Her chief trial assistant, Shirley Rogers, who has 25 years of experience, chairs it, she said.
The committee considers every case in detail, looking at issues such as whether the defendant has prior convictions or a history of violence, she said.
Data on the circuit attorney's Web site - www.circuitattorney.org - offered some examples of the disparity between prosecutors' recommendations and the judge's final sentencings.
There is the case of Keith Clayborn, convicted in a trial of second-degree robbery. Prosecutors recommended 10 years in prison, but the judge sentenced him last year to probation, the Web site shows.
Paul D. Baker pleaded guilty of possessing a controlled substance. Prosecutors recommended 20 years; Baker gave him probation.
Joyce said drug trafficking left families in fear of even walking with their children in certain areas, and she considered it a serious offense. "We just don't consider that a victimless crime here in the city: It's totally corrosive to neighborhoods."
In some cases, dealers are charged with possession because they get caught holding only one "rock" of crack, with their supply hidden elsewhere, Joyce said.
Baker was appointed a judge in 1983. Last year, she moved from a civil case division into Division 21, which handles criminal cases.
On Thursday, in her chambers in the Carnahan Courthouse downtown, Baker denounced Joyce's tactics. She said the prosecutors in Joyce's office were under orders to pursue "blanket" disqualification orders in cases before her.
Joyce disputed the "blanket" policy accusation but acknowledged her office had sought a significant number of disqualifications this year against Baker - and none against the other 10 criminal judges.
"I think it is an attempt to control the bench, but we stand pretty solidly behind each other," Baker said.
Judge Michael David, the presiding judge, could not be reached for comment. Another judge declined comment.
It is not the first time Baker has tangled with a prosecutor. In 1989, former St. Louis Circuit Attorney George Peach vowed to seek disqualifications of Baker for the remaining three years of his term in office. Baker had thrown out nine felony convictions returned by a jury, concluding there was insufficient evidence for the convictions.
On Thursday, Baker stood by her guns, just as she did then. "I know they don't like a lot of my rulings," she said, "but I strictly go by the law."
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