The voicemail left on St. Louis police detective Roger Murphey’s cellphone carried a clear sense of urgency.
A prosecutor in the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office was pleading with Murphey to testify in a murder trial, the sort of thing the lead detective on a case would routinely do to see an arrest through to conviction. The prosecutor told Murphey that, without his testimony, the suspect could walk free.
“I wanted to reach out to you one more time,” Assistant Circuit Attorney Srikant Chigurupati said in a message one afternoon in June 2021. “I do think we need you on this case.”
Murphey didn’t respond.
That evening, Chigurupati left Murphey another voicemail. “If it makes any difference, this guy’s a really bad guy,” Chigurupati said, according to the message, which Murphey provided for this story. “What he did was pretty ridiculous. So, I mean, can you put your differences aside and focus on getting this guy?”
Again, Murphey didn’t respond.
Weeks later, a jury found Brian Vincent not guilty, and he went free. Murphey said he believes his refusal to testify helped scuttle the case — a claim corroborated by at least one juror from the trial.
A number of American cities have elected prosecutors who promised progressive law enforcement, focusing as much on police accountability as being tough on crime. In St. Louis, that prosecutor was Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, who was elected in 2016 following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in the suburb of Ferguson. Gardner came into office pledging to reduce mass incarceration and promote rehabilitation over punishment.
But from San Francisco to Philadelphia, prosecutors like Gardner have faced pushback from the police and, in several cities, from their own courtroom assistants. Politicians and voters have tried to remove some of these prosecutors from office — and, in a number of cities, they have been successful.
Murphey’s resistance to Gardner — Chigurupati’s boss when Vincent’s case went to trial — was unusual and, perhaps, extreme. By his own account, he was willing to help murder suspects walk free to make a point, even if he arrested them and believed that they should be behind bars.
In 2019, Gardner added Murphey to a list of police officers who would not be allowed to apply for criminal charges because of questions about their credibility, and she said her office would evaluate whether those officers could testify in court. Although the identities of those officers were not made public, one of Murphey’s supervisors notified him that his name was on Gardner’s list.
Weeks later, a prosecutor in Gardner’s office notified Murphey that the office not only would actually let him testify in the cases he had led that were heading to trial — it expected him to.
Murphey, who retired in September 2021, said he felt stuck in a Catch-22. If Gardner was going to impugn his character and question his credibility, he decided, he wouldn’t cooperate with her prosecutors. He believed that if he went to court, defense lawyers would use his inclusion on Gardner’s list to attack him on cross-examination, making the trials more about him than the defendants.
Since that time, he has refused to testify in at least nine murder cases in which he served as lead detective. He said he told prosecutors that, if they subpoenaed him to testify, “I’m going to sit on the stand and I’m not going to answer any questions.”
His refusal, according to prosecutors, contributed to their decisions to offer defendants in at least four of the murder cases plea deals with reduced charges and lighter sentences. Prosecutors were still able to get murder convictions in three cases.
In one case, prosecutors dropped the charges altogether, saying the office “did not have witness participation.” Though it wasn’t clear if Murphey’s refusal contributed to the decision, he said the prosecution would have been hamstrung without him because he had collected evidence and conducted interviews in the case.
Vincent’s case was the only acquittal at trial.
Murphey never faced discipline from the police department for refusing to testify, a fact that criminal justice experts find astonishing. They said his refusal undermined not just the integrity of the cases but also the police department’s commitment to justice.
Gardner battled the police and their union over her platform throughout her nearly six and a half years in office. But she also struggled with a host of internal issues, from the departure of dissatisfied prosecutors to a growing backlog of cases that the office could not manage. Those issues contributed to stinging criticism of her leadership — initially from law enforcement but then from even her own prosecutors.
It wasn’t until this May that staff departures became so numerous and pressure on her to resign so fierce that she stepped down. In exchange for her resignation, Republican lawmakers agreed to drop a bill that would have allowed the state to take over the circuit attorney’s office. The Republican attorney general also dropped a lawsuit seeking to force her out.
Robert Tracy, the St. Louis police chief, did not respond to an interview request. Gardner did not respond to requests for comment, and she has retreated from public life. The office is now run by Gabriel Gore, a former federal prosecutor appointed by Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, to serve until an election next year. Gore has issued updates about his supervision of the office, including hiring dozens of prosecutors and reducing a backlog of pending cases.
Murphey, who sees himself as a righteous renegade in St. Louis’ beleaguered law enforcement system, wishes other officers had taken similar stands against prosecutors like Gardner. But he said he understands why they haven’t. “They have wives, they have kids, they have tuition, medical bills,” he said. “But me — it’s just me and my wife, and my wife is like, ‘Go for it.’”
At least 10 other officers refused to cooperate with Gardner’s team, according to interviews and court records. But Murphey stood apart because of his crucial role in some of the city’s most significant, and most violent, cases.
While expressing some sympathy for the family of the victim whose fatal beating Vincent was tried for, Murphey stood by his decision not to cooperate.
“Brian Vincent should be sitting in a penitentiary right now for the rest of his life,” he said. “But he’s not.”
The report of a suspicious death came across Murphey’s desk just after sunset on a cold November evening in 2018. A man named Larry Keck had been found in his bed, partly covered by a sheet, his face and body severely battered.
Murphey pulled up to a four-family flat in Shaw, a neighborhood of red brick homes on the city’s south side. As he stepped into Keck’s apartment, a painting in the living room caught his eye. It depicted an Italianate-style mansion in Lafayette Square, and it stirred a memory from his childhood. The mansion had once been owned by Keck, whom Murphey had known when he was young. Keck had spent his working life restoring some of St. Louis’ grandest homes, fixing windows and other architectural elements. Murphey had once helped him move furniture.
Murphey and other officers quickly zeroed in on Vincent, 40, as a suspect. Police reports and interviews show that Vincent and Keck, who was 68, had been in a romantic relationship, and that Vincent had been staying at Keck’s apartment on and off after getting out of prison earlier that year. A friend of Keck’s told police she had seen them together at his house late the night before.
Vincent had at least 31 felony convictions at the time and had served five stints in prison over the previous two decades; the longest was six years. His most recent conviction was for a 2014 home burglary, where he stole hundreds of dollars’ worth of electronics and jewelry, according to police and court records.
Six months before Keck’s death, neighbors called the police one night as Vincent loudly banged on Keck’s door for 45 minutes. An officer provided Keck with a form to request a restraining order against Vincent, but there’s no record of Keck filing it. Keck’s friends told police they had noticed bruises on him in the past, leading them to suspect that Vincent was abusing him. Keck had also told the friends that Vincent was stealing from him.
Murphey brought Vincent to police headquarters for questioning and placed him in a small, windowless room. According to a video of the interrogation, which Murphey provided, Vincent told Murphey and another detective that he and Keck had been out with friends the night before Keck was found dead and that some of them had gone back to Keck’s apartment at about 10 p.m. to smoke crack cocaine. Vincent said that afterward he slept in the alley behind the house and woke around 2 a.m. He said he then walked downtown — a distance of 4 miles — to see his probation officer.
Murphey questioned Vincent’s account, pointing out that his clothes, which Vincent said he was still wearing from the night before, were remarkably clean for someone who had slept in an alley. He noted, too, that the overnight temperature was 19 degrees, making it difficult to believe that Vincent had slept outside. Vincent seemed indignant, telling Murphey that he should be looking at Keck’s drug dealers as possible suspects.
“Some of them are probably dangerous,” he said in the video of the interrogation.
Murphey told Vincent that he believed Vincent had killed Keck. When Vincent asked for a lawyer, according to the video, Murphey ended the interrogation, arresting Vincent on a first-degree murder charge.
Murphey later tracked down two maintenance workers who had been at the building. One of them picked Vincent out of a photo lineup, according to police reports, and said he saw Vincent go in and out of Keck’s apartment a short time before Keck’s body was discovered.
Murphey said in a sworn deposition, taken by Vincent’s lawyer as part of pretrial proceedings, that the lack of a plausible alibi was “what sealed it for me,” according to the deposition.
Vincent, in a brief interview, said he was innocent and described Keck as a close friend: “We worked together and had our differences but he was a good man.” He called Murphey a “crooked cop” who tried to frame him.
He said Murphey “didn’t have the balls to show up” at his trial.
Murphey started his working life in 1982 at age 17 as an Army cook, and three years later he enlisted in the Air Force as a security specialist. During Operation Desert Storm, he spent close to two years at bases in Europe, but he returned to the U.S. and Whiteman Air Force Base in western Missouri when his wife became ill.
During his time at Whiteman, he got a part-time job as a police officer in La Monte, a small town near the base. It was light work, he said, watching over a general store and a handful of shops.
Murphey returned to St. Louis and entered the police academy, graduating in May 1995. Two years later, he was named officer of the year in the city’s 9th police district. The head of a neighborhood association had written a letter to Murphey’s captain commending Murphey for helping to oust drug dealers from a problem property.
Paris Bouchard, who wrote that letter, said he remembered Murphey as being uncommonly accessible and helping to “bring amazing change to our block.”
“He was so good at what he was doing,” Bouchard said.
Murphey became a detective in 2007 — work that he said satisfied his curiosity. “I like finding out what happened. I’m nosy,” he said. Four years later, he won a coveted transfer to the homicide unit.
“I’m not saying that I was the greatest,” Murphey said. “But you know, to get there, you’ve got to be able to prove yourself. You did your time on the street.”
In audio recordings of his interviews with witnesses and suspects, which Murphey provided, he seemed to balance sternness with empathy, establishing an initial rapport before launching into his questioning. His questions started out broad, then zeroed in on details.
In one recording, he began to question a suspect’s wife by asking, “What kind of dogs you got? I’ve got pit bulls myself.” Then he moved to the matter at hand. “You weren’t with him today when he shot at this lady?”
Scott Ecker, who supervised Murphey in the homicide unit, called him a great detective. “You’re just not going to find a more passionate individual that actually cares about not only the victim but the victim’s family,” he said.
Yet Murphey was prone to office disputes. He accused colleagues of tampering with his phone and desk. When residents protested against police brutality, he criticized Black leaders who put a spotlight on racial bias within the department, sometimes accusing them of twisting facts to ascribe racial motives to situations where he believed race was not a factor.
His comments didn’t go unnoticed. Sgt. Heather Taylor, then a supervisor in the homicide unit and the leader of an organization for Black officers, challenged Murphey’s comments as racially insensitive. Murphey, in turn, said that he complained to the command staff about what he viewed as Taylor’s false claims of racism in the department.
In a recent interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Murphey named three Black, female leaders — Gardner, Taylor and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones — as the reason many officers had left the department. He called the women “catalysts that broke the system.”
Taylor, who is now the city’s deputy public safety director, said that during their time in the homicide unit, she had dealt with complaints about Murphey being insubordinate and combative with colleagues. “If fighting racism is me breaking the police department,” she said, “I hope more people do exactly what I did.”
Gardner and the police force were at odds even before she was elected. Speaking to supporters days before her resignation, she recounted a meeting with officials from the St. Louis Police Officers Association before the election, where, she said, union officials told her, “We will let you be in this office if you make sure you never hold any police officer accountable.”
Representatives for the union did not respond to requests for comment.
During her first year in office, Gardner accused the police department of withholding evidence in about two dozen cases in which a police officer shot someone, and she asked the city to launch an independent team to lead all investigations into such incidents. A city bill to create the team did not advance to a vote.
The police union, meantime, routinely criticized Gardner, saying she refused to issue criminal charges in cases where officers had made arrests; they argued that she rejected far more cases than her predecessor, Jennifer Joyce. In response, Gardner said the cases often lacked sufficient evidence.
Gardner’s first high-profile prosecution was one she inherited from Joyce: a murder case against Jason Stockley, a white St. Louis police officer who was accused of shooting and killing a Black man during a chase and then planting a gun on him. Stockley was acquitted, which sparked street protests. Gardner said the acquittal showed the need for independent investigations of police shootings, which she said her office should lead.
In August 2018, Gardner created what became known as her “exclusion list,” which she said included 28 officers whose conduct had undermined their credibility. She said prosecutors would refuse to issue charges in any case involving an officer on the list that depended on their testimony.
Some officers, however, would still be allowed to testify on cases that had been launched before the list was created. Murphey wasn’t yet on the list.
Prosecutors are required to disclose to the defense any evidence that may favor the accused or undermine the credibility of a witness. A national police chiefs association recommends that police departments inform prosecutors when any issues arise that could affect officers’ credibility, such as making false reports or expressing racial bias. But St. Louis police have not had a procedure for this. Joyce said the extent to which the police department shared such information depended on who was the chief at the time. “Some were more forthcoming than others,” she said.
Nationally, the approach to these lists varies. While some prosecutors offices don’t maintain such lists, others do but choose to keep them private. Some offices, including that of State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in Chicago, have made them public. Joyce said her office did create internal records on officers to be excluded from prosecutions but mainly operated with a “mental list.”
Gardner’s replacement, Gore, said he had no exclusion list and had no plans to try to keep tabs on officers with credibility problems. He said that was up to the police department to do.
“I don’t have the attorney manpower to send people over and have them scouring through police personnel files, looking for things that might potentially be relevant to a witness’s credibility and necessary to be produced at a trial,” Gore said.
The first batch of names on Gardner’s list included officers who had refused to cooperate with her office in cases where they had shot someone. The police union said after Stockley’s trial that other officers who had used force to arrest suspects feared becoming targets of prosecutors. Gardner said their refusal to testify prevented her from bringing cases to trial. Tensions continued to rise after the police union said it wanted the state legislature to change the law so Gardner could be impeached or recalled.
One afternoon in March 2019, St. Louis police officers entered Gardner’s office with a search warrant and seized a computer server. The raid had been ordered by a special prosecutor investigating a perjury claim tied to an investigator in Gardner’s office. But an appeals court intervened and the police returned the equipment.
Gardner saw the raid as a direct affront to her authority. She sharply criticized the police, accusing them of deploying tactics “to intimidate, harass and embarrass this office.”
In June 2019, the Plain View Project, a national research project that identifies officers across the country making racist, violent or anti-Muslim social media posts, released a database that included posts from St. Louis officers. Using the information, Gardner added 22 more names to the exclusion list, telling the city’s public safety director and police chief in a letter that the posts were “shocking and beneath the dignity of someone who holds such a powerful position.”
Murphey was one of those officers whose social media posts were exposed and was added to the list. After the Stockley acquittal, he posted that the protestors were supporting “a violent thug,” and he referred to Gardner as “kimmy g.”
Over several interviews with reporters, Murphey said he was not a racist. He said he had a right to express his views, particularly about the Stockley case. He had been involved in the initial investigation of Stockley, he said, and said that Stockley “did not commit a crime.”
Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and currently the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a think tank focused on prosecution reform, said if an officer’s posts indicate troubling attitudes or biases, prosecutors are right to question “whether they still have integrity and still can be trusted to pursue their job in a fair and unbiased and professional way.”
Foxx, the state’s attorney in Cook County, said in an interview that “credibility matters.” A defense attorney, she added, would be able to use those posts “to demonstrate how this person described the victim of a crime, and his credibility before a jury or before a judge would be called into question.”
But R. Michael Cassidy, a law professor at Boston College and an expert in prosecutorial ethics, said that Gardner’s use of the list seemed fraught. He questioned why a prosecutor would expect any officer on an exclusion list to cooperate with them.
“You might take the position that ‘I’ve justifiably alienated the police officer and there’s a public interest in not having racist police officers,’” he said. “Now you have to deal with the consequences of that.”
Those consequences can be significant, including allowing some defendants to go free even though they may have committed serious crimes because a prosecutor can no longer call an officer to the witness stand. As a result, prosecutors who keep these lists need to be selective about who they include, said Alissa Marque Heydari, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney who is now a research professor at Vanderbilt University.
A more flexible approach, Heydari said, would be for prosecutors to keep another list of officers who have committed misconduct that would not be disqualifying — an officer who was arrested for drunken driving, for instance — but that must still be disclosed to the defense as part of a robust effort to fulfill legal requirements. It’s the difference between using a scalpel and a chainsaw.
“Once you put them on that list, there’s not much flexibility,” said Heydari. “You can’t then go back and say, ‘Well, I need this officer because it’s a homicide.’”
After Murphey was placed on the exclusion list, supervisors struggled to find a role for him since any case he became involved in would be compromised. At times, he did nothing more than stream movies at his desk.
At the same time, some former colleagues said, he openly criticized the police department’s management and talked more and more about Gardner. Some detectives who shared his criticism of the circuit attorney came to understand that it could harm their cases if he played a role in them.
In August 2019, two months after Murphey was placed on the exclusion list, he was transferred to the patrol division. He would no longer wear a suit to work. The department issued him a standard blue uniform and assigned him to respond to radio calls. He was a beat cop again.
Then, in January 2020, Gardner filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing the city, the local police union and others of a coordinated and racist conspiracy to force her out of office. Murphey’s Facebook posts were among the evidence she cited.
Gardner’s clash with the police only seemed to bolster her reputation among city voters. After a resounding victory in the August 2020 Democratic primary, her reelection was all but assured.
Weeks later, a federal judge dismissed her lawsuit, deeming it “nothing more than a compilation of personal slights.”
Although Murphey was downgraded to patrol, his murder cases continued moving forward in court. Lining up and preparing the testimony of the lead detective is a basic step for prosecutors as they get ready for trial. The lead detective often weaves together the details of a crime and the investigation that followed, providing a narrative for the jury.
But if the lead detective is absent, the prosecution can be undermined. Key information about the crime scene and witness interviews, which the detective usually provides from the witness stand, may be lost. Jurors may suspect something is amiss.
The cases against Terrence Robinson and Naesean Thompson, two men charged with first-degree murder in the 2017 shooting of Raymond Neal, were the first of Murphey’s investigations to head to trial after Gardner put him on the exclusion list.
Murphey’s investigation had found that the incident started when Neal got into an argument with Thompson, who was allegedly selling drugs outside a convenience store. Neal grabbed Thompson’s jacket and the men began to fight. Thompson pulled out a gun. Robinson — who was there with Thompson — then pulled out his own gun and shot Neal, according to police.
Murphey obtained surveillance video from the store, which showed the shooting. He interviewed witnesses, helped identify Thompson and Robinson as suspects, and wrote the police reports that concluded that the two men were responsible for Neal’s death.
The prosecutor handling the case, H. Morley Swingle, recognized how important Murphey was going to be and sought clarification about Murphey’s status from a top Gardner official. The official assured Swingle that Murphey could testify, according to an email from Swingle to Murphey’s attorney, which Murphey provided.
Although Gardner had indefinitely banned certain officers, Murphey wasn’t one of them. He fell into “some lesser category,” Swingle wrote in the email. Still, Murphey refused to testify for Swingle.
In October 2019, Swingle made a deal with Robinson: He dropped the murder case, and Robinson pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action. Robinson was sentenced to seven years in prison with eligibility for parole early in the third year of his incarceration, far less than he would have received if convicted of first-degree murder.
Robinson was released on parole last year. He could not be reached for comment and his attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
In February 2020, Thompson pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to time served in the city jail. He did not respond to a request for comment through his lawyer, Neil Barron. Barron said that while proving the murder charge against his client to a jury would have been challenging, “Murphey refusing to testify absolutely makes this a harder case to prosecute.”
Marcia Miller, Neal’s mother, said that prosecutors told her that a plea bargain was their only option in the case “because of the evidence,” even though she reminded them that they had a videotape of Robinson killing her son. She said that the prosecutors never mentioned that Murphey had refused to testify.
Swingle said Murphey’s refusal to cooperate was not the only factor influencing his decision to accept a plea deal in the Robinson case. He said it would have been difficult to secure a murder conviction for a killing over a drug deal, even though it had been captured on video.
Murphey refused to testify even as prosecutors negotiated what he viewed as lenient deals with defendants he was convinced were guilty of particularly brutal crimes and deserved life sentences.
One of those defendants, he said, was Collin Aubuchon, who was charged with killing Richard Kladky in March 2019. The men had been staying in the same sober living facility, but after clashing over Aubuchon’s flirtatious text exchange with Kladky’s wife, Kladky moved to another facility.
On Kladky’s first day at his new home, Aubuchon used GPS to locate Kladky and shot him five times, killing him. He then surrendered to a security guard and claimed he had just shot someone who had threatened him.
During the interrogation, Aubuchon confessed, saying Kladky had been sending him threatening texts warning him to keep away from his wife, according to a video of the interrogation, which Murphey provided to the news organizations. While examining Aubuchon’s phone and tablet, Murphey found that Kladky had threatened to hurt Aubuchon if he didn’t stop flirting with his wife, the video showed. Aubuchon, in turn, taunted Kladky by saying he was going to have sex with her.
“I was just being an asshole,” Aubuchon told Murphey.
With the confession in hand, Murphey said that he viewed the case as a “slam dunk” that would have resulted in a life sentence — if he had cooperated. “I don’t know of anything that would mitigate what he did,” Murphey said.
In May 2021, Assistant Circuit Attorney Chris Desilets agreed to a plea deal with Aubuchon that called for a 13-year prison term for voluntary manslaughter; Aubuchon is scheduled for release in early 2026.
In a brief telephone interview from prison, Aubuchon said he didn’t know Murphey had refused to testify against him and acknowledged that he might have benefited from that refusal. He said he took a plea deal rather than risk life in prison.
Desilets said that pushing the Aubuchon case, as well as others, to trial without Murphey’s cooperation would have been like “playing chicken.” He said he did the best he could to get justice for the victims.
“Roger caused a lot of problems,” he said.
Eric Lee Boehmer, Aubuchon’s lawyer, said that while he wasn’t sure how important Murphey’s testimony would have been to the prosecution, his refusal to testify wasn’t the sole factor influencing the plea bargain. He said there was strong evidence his client acted in self defense.
Kladky’s relatives said they were never told about Murphey’s refusal to cooperate in the case.
Mary Kladky, his sister, said it was “heartbreaking” that a police officer would abandon a case. As for Aubuchon, she said, “Just as we’re beginning to heal, he’s going to walk free.”
Murphey’s refusal did not always sink a case. At times, prosecutors still went to trial without him. Three cases proceeded to trial without Murphey’s cooperation — each resulting in first-degree murder convictions. In one of the cases handled by Desilets, he said the prosecution would have been “smoother” with Murphey’s testimony.
In some cases, prosecutors could not even salvage a plea deal. Chigurupati, the prosecutor in the Larry Keck murder, went to trial against Brian Vincent without his lead detective.
It’s hard to pinpoint the impact of Murphey’s absence on the outcome of the case. Missouri law considers records from criminal proceedings confidential after an acquittal, so reporters were unable to get a copy of the trial transcript, which could have illuminated the prosecution’s shortcomings.
In an interview, one juror said gaps in the evidence hurt the case, but that the absence of the lead detective was particularly noticeable. He said he wondered, “Why the heck weren’t there a couple of key players there?” said the juror, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his privacy. “Why wasn’t the lead detective there?”
A second juror noted that, although Murphey’s absence wasn’t a pivotal factor, the prosecution seemed to her “scattered.” Vincent’s lawyer adeptly cast doubt on his guilt, leaving her believing in his innocence.
Murphey said his absence likely prevented Chigurupati from presenting a coherent narrative of the crime and investigation. “I’m pretty much sure that me not being there didn’t help the case at all. If I’m sitting on a jury and the main detective’s not there, I’d be wondering why,” he said.
During his holdout, Murphey agreed to testify in one case: the trial of Eric Lawson, who was accused of murdering his 10-month-old son, his ex-girlfriend and her mother in 2012. Murphey agreed to cooperate because Gardner’s office recused itself due to a conflict of interest, leaving the prosecution with then-Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a vocal critic of Gardner.
Murphey also said he felt a special duty to one of the victims, the sister of a police officer. “The bias,” he explained, “is it’s a policeman’s family. And, you know, we’re all supportive for each other.”
In pretrial motions, defense attorneys argued that Murphey’s credibility was a central issue in the case, and said that, during the trial, they should be allowed to ask him about his Facebook posts and his removal from the homicide unit. Since Lawson was Black, they contended that Murphey’s use of the word “thug” and his disrespectful nickname for Gardner “could be perceived by jurors as evidence of racial animus.”
The judge in the trial refused to allow the defense to cross-examine Murphey about his social media activity, saying it “may be unprofessional, but it’s not racist.” Murphey ultimately testified at trial and, in May 2021, a jury convicted Lawson and sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
Murphey never faced disciplinary action for his refusal to cooperate with prosecutors. In fact, the police department continued to send him to investigate cases after he was placed on the exclusion list. He continued to draw the same salary.
Murphey said that, in mid-2020, during staffing shortages in the worst months of the pandemic, his supervisors asked him to work again as a detective, though not in the homicide unit. Murphey said he warned supervisors that putting him back on investigations was ill-advised. “I said, ‘I’m not going to be good to you, because I’m just going to be sitting there,’” he recalled. He even cautioned supervisors about pairing him with a partner as a way to work around his restrictions.
Peter Joy, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in legal ethics, said Murphey’s stance was “absurd” and a “dereliction of duty.”
“If you’re hired to do something, you do it,” he said. “You don’t have to love your boss. If you hate your boss, you should leave. But don’t sabotage the work you’re doing.”
But he said the police department was wrong as well to let Murphey continue investigating cases while he was on Gardner’s exclusion list because the department knew his involvement could compromise those cases.
Joyce, Gardner’s predecessor, said it was hard to believe the department allowed Murphey to refuse to testify for so long. “The mindset that ‘I’m not going to testify in murder cases as a protest’ is, I believe, unprofessional,” she said.
Cassidy, the Boston College law professor, said “the police chief needs to order that person to testify, and on threat of discipline.” He said the prosecutor “needs to either convince the police chief to order him to testify or needs to go to court to get a subpoena, and when he refuses to come in, ask the court to issue an arrest warrant for his appearance.”
None of that was done. Desilets said forcing Murphey to court would have done no good. Murphey would have still refused to testify and become a hostile witness. And hostile witnesses, he said, are “mostly ineffective with jurors.”
Just before her resignation, Gardner had scored a major victory, one that epitomized what many say is the ideal role of progressive prosecutors. On Feb. 14 of this year, a local judge exonerated Lamar Johnson, who had spent almost three decades in prison for a crime he did not commit. Gardner had spearheaded the effort to free Johnson after her conviction integrity unit uncovered prosecutorial misconduct and shoddy police work in his case. The state attorney general’s office under Eric Schmitt, before his election to the U.S. Senate in November 2022, had opposed the effort.
But a series of events quickly sapped her political support. Four days after Johnson’s release, a 17-year-old visiting downtown St. Louis for a volleyball tournament was struck by a reckless driver and had to have both legs amputated. The driver had been free on bond even though he had violated the conditions of his release dozens of times.
The responsibility for the lapse was unclear, falling somewhere between Gardner’s office and the judge, but public outrage rained hard on Gardner. Republican lawmakers began to push for legislation that would allow the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to handle violent crime in St. Louis, effectively undermining Gardner’s authority.
Mayor Tishaura Jones, a former Gardner ally, added her voice to the criticism. She said Gardner had lost the “trust of the people.” Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who succeeded Schmitt, sued to remove Gardner from office.
Then Gardner’s office, which had been losing key lawyers, failed to appear on the first day of a high-profile murder trial of a man accused of killing someone on the grounds of the Gateway Arch. Gardner’s office blamed the snafu on a staff attorney not properly requesting time off; a text message from that lawyer, which became public, showed him writing of Gardner: “I half expect her to be in jail before my vacation ends.”
The following week, Gardner’s office failed to show up at a hearing in the case of a man accused of shooting an 11-year-old. The prosecutor’s office had already missed the first day of the scheduled trial, and this second no-show prompted the judge to appoint a special prosecutor to consider contempt charges against Gardner and the prosecutor assigned to the case.
The judge, during a court hearing, called Gardner’s office “a rudderless ship of chaos.”
Gardner dug in. But the following weeks saw her office embroiled in additional controversies, including the resignation of a prosecutor who criticized her leadership. As her office continued to lose staff, it was revealed that Gardner was enrolled in an advanced nursing program, a possible violation of a state law requiring the circuit attorney to give their “entire time and energy” to their official duties.
A few days before her resignation, Gardner spoke from the pulpit of a church to a few dozen supporters and said she “never had a fair shake.” All along, she said, she was surrounded by people “who have colluded and conspired inside this office and out to make sure we’re not successful.”
One unresolved murder case that involves Murphey — though he did not act as lead detective — is the 2015 death of Kristopher Schmeiderer, who died from a knife attack that had occurred in 2014.
Before Schmeiderer’s death, Andrew Lynn Barnett had been convicted of first-degree assault and armed criminal action for attacking Schmeiderer. But the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2019, ruling that the judge in the case had erred by not giving the jury an instruction that self-defense could have justified the attack, even though Barnett had claimed in his defense that he didn’t attack Schmeiderer at all.
In 2021, the circuit attorney’s office charged Barnett with second-degree murder. A trial is expected this fall.
Though Murphey didn’t testify at the assault trial, he did contribute to the evidence collection. He helped find clothes that Barnett allegedly discarded in a sewer after the attack and seized them as evidence.
Now, his testimony has become more valuable. One of the detectives who testified at Barnett’s first trial has since died, and the circuit attorney’s office is trying to line up its witnesses — including Murphey.
Kathy Schmeiderer, the victim’s mother, said she hopes Murphey will testify.
“We want justice for our son, to close the wound,” she said.
But Murphey said he won’t take the stand.
Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR contributed reporting.