St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell will not seek the death penalty in the case against Thomas Bruce, who is accused of killing Jamie Schmidt and assaulting two other women at the Catholic Supply Store located in West St. Louis County last November.
Bell, who took office on Jan. 1, had said during his campaign that he would “never seek the death penalty.” He campaigned on five priorities, listed on his campaign website as: “End mass incarceration and reform cash ball, target crime that matters most, engage the community to build trust through transparency, end the death penalty and resist the Trump administration.”
In his first 11 days in office, Bell has sought to fulfill those campaign promises in the form of policy changes that include:
• No longer prosecuting marijuana possession cases of fewer than 100 grams. Prosecution of more than 100 grams will be pursued only if evidence suggests the sale or distribution of marijuana.
• Not prosecuting people who fail to pay child support. Current cases will be placed on hold. Not seeking to revoke probation solely on the basis of failure to pay child support.
• Not seeking charges against those who fail to pay restitution without a court order establishing someone’s “willful nonpayment” of child support.
• Not requesting cash bail on misdemeanor cases; issuing summonses instead of warrants on class D and E felony cases.
• Not seeking to “overcharge” defendants “to pressure the accused to admit guilt.” Prosecutors are barred from adding more counts to increase the range of punishment or threatening to route cases back to a grand jury if a defendant has exercised his or her pretrial constitutional rights.
• Evaluating a defendant’s “prior conditions of release when there has been a failure to appear on an open case” and not asking for cash bail if there is no evidence someone has tried to elude police or used an alias “in a police encounter.”
• Requiring prosecutors to share “the entire contents” of a criminal case file to the defense except for work product to fulfill Supreme Court rules for disclosing evidence.
• Barring prosecutors from threatening witnesses “in an effort to force them to participate in prosecutions.”
Additionally, Bell announced in a press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 8 that he would pursue a new approach in fighting the opioid crisis in St. Louis County by “expanding the capacity of St. Louis County’s diversion programs and alternative courts” to address “addiction and mental health care.” Bell has said that criminalizing addiction and mental health rather than treating those conditions has “only resulted in crime, violence and fatalities.”
Bell’s plan proposes increased utilization of St. Louis County’s Drug Court and its community partnerships – with nonprofits, businesses and government agencies – to treat an offender’s addiction and aid in securing housing and employment.
St. Louis County Councilmember Tim Fitch [District 3], whose 34-year career in law enforcement culminated as St. Louis County’s chief of police, said on Jan. 11 that he has “always been in favor of treatment as opposed to incarceration for those dealing with addiction.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” Fitch said. Drug dealers he added are “another story.”
Likewise, Fitch said he thinks Bell deserves a chance to prove that he can be successful.
“He has only been in office for 11 days, so I’m willing to give him a chance on everything except the [Class] D and E felonies. Those are another story,” Fitch told West Newsmagazine. “Burglary, sexual contact with a student, second-degree rape, fourth-degree child molestation,” Fitch said those are not instances where the suspects should get off with a “punishment akin to a traffic violation.” Suspects in those instances, he said, should have to post bail and appear in court.
As for Bell’s decision not to pursue the death penalty against Bruce, Fitch said, “I’m not surprised.” He pointed to Bell’s campaign rhetoric and asked, “Was there any doubt?”
“I think that if he had even one family member [of Schmidt] that was OK with him not seeking the death penalty, then that is what he was going to do,” Fitch said.
Speaking on behalf of Schmidt’s family, James G’Sell, a deacon at St. Anthony of Padua, the family’s church, said Schmidt’s husband supports Bell’s decision.
“Greg thinks in many ways that the death penalty is easier, too generous on Thomas Bruce, because he needs to suffer the consequences of his actions, think about what he did every day for the rest of his life,” G’Sell said.
However, Fitch said the community also is a victim in the crime. For many in the community, Bell’s decision may not be as widely accepted.