Thomas A. Carroll, a former detective in St. Louis, is currently serving a 52-month prison sentence for a crime he committed in the summer of 2014. Carroll pled guilty to violating the civil rights of Michael Waller by brutally assaulting him while he was handcuffed and in police custody, arrested on suspicion of breaking into the car belonging to Carroll’s daughter. Evidence indicated that Carroll threw the suspect against a wall, bruised his ribs, and so roughly shoved a pistol into his mouth that Waller’s tooth chipped. The detective’s conduct was shocking; surely prosecutors were appalled when they learned about his behavior? Not so much.
Carroll’s buddy in the Circuit Attorney’s office, Bliss Barber Worrell, took his phone call shortly after the crime. After hearing him confess to attacking a defenseless man, Worrell took the low road. She filed baseless charges against Waller to help cover up Carroll’s criminal meltdown. After an investigation into the cover-up by multiple agencies, including Internal Affairs, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney’s office, Worrell eventually pled guilty to her own crime (covering up a felony), was disbarred by the state supreme court, and sentenced to 18 months on probation and 140 hours of community service. Surely Worrell’s own wrongdoing was isolated? Other St. Louis prosecutors would have been outraged by what she did, right? Not so much.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last week that over three years after Carroll’s crime, three former employees of the Circuit Attorney’s office, including two prosecutors, “are facing possible professional discipline over allegations that they lied about the cover-up of [Carroll’s] assault on [Waller].” Ambry Nicole Schuessler and Katherine “Katie” Dierdorf were prosecutors alongside Worrell; Caroline Anne Rutledge was a law school intern working in the office at the time. All three of them had almost immediate knowledge of Carroll’s crime and failed to take any action to report it.
Although District Attorneys’ offices quickly disclaim prosecutorial malfeasance by arguing that there are only a few bad apples in the profession, this case certainly calls that position into question. The allegations that the Chief Disciplinary Counsel filed against Schuessler, Dierdorf, and Rutledge reveal that Worrell was completely comfortable bringing them into the sordid loop. According to the pleading:
“Worrell came in [to Schuessler’s office] while talking on her cell phone with Carroll. Worrell put the conversation on speakerphone [with Dierdorf and Schuessler present] and Carroll described how he assaulted the suspect, including throwing him against the wall, breaking his ribs, and putting a pistol down his throat. Schuessler made the slur: ‘I bet that’s not the first big black thing he has had in his mouth.’”
While Schuessler may have been quick enough to make an unprofessional, inappropriate, and low-grade quip on the heels of learning that a police officer in her jurisdiction had just committed a grave crime representing a serious abuse of authority, she was noticeably less sharp in dealing with the subsequent investigation. The Chief Disciplinary Counsel alleged that Schuessler, like Dierdorf, lied to her supervisors, Internal Affairs investigators, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney. Indeed, when confronted with her vile comments during the investigation, she lied and pointed the finger at Carroll, claiming that he made the slur. In response to the disciplinary charge, Schuessler’s attorney stated that her false “attribution was due solely to her embarrassment and a good faith belief that the statement was not important to the investigation.” It will be interesting to see if the Court lets a prosecutor who failed to report a police officer’s crime take refuge in any claim of “good faith.”
While there were at least four bad apples in the City of St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office when Carroll beat Waller, there may have been at least one ethical prosecutor in sight. According to the disciplinary lawyer’s allegations, after Worrell discussed the issue with Dierdorf and Rutledge in person, the three “participated in a group text, agreeing that they needed to be careful talking about such things within ear shot of another Assistant Circuit Attorney, Vannah Shaw, who takes her role as a ‘true public servant’ very seriously.” (One wonders if there had been more good apples in the office, would Worrell have even been willing to file false charges?)
Seriousness seemed altogether absent within the cover-up crew. Indeed, even after the abuse of power came to light and Worrell pled guilty, no one seemed to grasp the magnitude of the situation. Even the federal prosecutors, who ultimately went easy on Worrell and recommended probation instead of jail time, doubted that local law enforcement got the message. “Assistant U.S. Attorney Fara Gold . . . said that she ‘struggled’ with it and didn’t want to condone Worrell’s conduct. Gold said that no one in the case—including police and former prosecutors, both criminally charged and uncharged—‘seemed to understand the gravity of what occurred.’” (Of course, this comment raises the question of why Gold recommended such a slight punishment for Worrell. Perhaps it goes without saying that prosecutors are reluctant to prosecute and punish other prosecutors—the prosecutorial equivalent of the police code of silence.) Jennifer Joyce, then the elected Circuit Attorney, at least had the sense to fire the prosecutors who facilitated the cover up (her ethical judgment has been called into question in other instances, but she had the wherewithal to distance herself from a criminal act).
Although the disciplinary process has been slow, it has generated some helpful insights. Consider, for example, Caroline Rutledge’s response. The Post-Dispatch notes: “Her filing says she was just an intern focused on an upcoming mock trial. She was also placed in a culture ‘that did not emphasize professionalism and ‘best practices’ for its interns’ and did not receive the appropriate supervision and management.” This seems entirely plausible, and one can certainly feel some sympathy for a lawyer-to-be caught in the middle of a scandal perpetrated by her supervisors. Another deep question the case raises is about the tight-knit relationship between prosecutors and police. As Joe Patrice put it in an essay on Above the Law: “Why did Carroll have confidence that Worrell would protect him? That’s the question St. Louis should be asking itself.” As always, accountability matters. The disciplinary process—when made publicly accessible—can contribute in small measure toward that goal of accountability.