Wednesday, August 14, 2019
A case summary from the Missouri Supreme Court
In cases consolidated for opinion, the chief disciplinary counsel seeks to discipline the law licenses of two former prosecutors accused of helping to cover up a detective’s assault of a suspect in custody and another prosecutor’s filing of false charges to explain the suspect’s injuries. In a unanimous decision written by Judge Patricia Breckenridge, the Supreme Court of Missouri finds a preponderance of the evidence proves both attorneys violated rules of professional conduct and the severity of their dishonesty and interference with the investigation warrants indefinite suspension of their law licenses. In SC97377, the attorney has no leave to apply for reinstatement for three years; in SC97376, the attorney has no leave to apply for reinstatement for two years.
Facts: While working in the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office, assistant circuit attorneys Katherine Dierdorf and Ambry Schuessler became friends with another assistant circuit attorney, Bliss Worrell. The group frequently socialized outside of work. Worrell also had a close, personal relationship with a St. Louis metropolitan police detective. One Wednesday morning, Worrell told Dierdorf the detective had beaten up a suspect he believed had broken into his daughter’s vehicle and stolen her credit card. Later that morning, the detective described the assault via speakerphone to Shuessler and Worrell, including that he had placed a gun in the suspect’s mouth. In response, Schuessler made a racist and homophobic comment about the suspect. Neither Schuessler nor Dierdorf reported the assault to their supervisors. That afternoon, Worrell intercepted the warrant for the suspect and falsely charged him with fleeing custody. Thursday morning, Dierdorf told Schuessler and another coworker what Worrell had done. Dierdorf communicated to Schuessler she did not intend to report Worrell’s conduct. Though hesitant, Schuessler accompanied a coworker when the coworker told their supervisor what Worrell had done. Dierdorf’s supervisors questioned her, but she did not disclose fully what or when she knew about the assault. She then told Schuessler to tell their supervisors she didn’t know anything either. Schuessler did not disclose fully her knowledge of the assault to her supervisors. When questioned Friday by the metropolitan police’s internal affairs department, neither Dierdorf nor Schuessler was fully forthcoming. When given an ultimatum, Dierdorf chose to resign in lieu of termination; Schuessler was not terminated or asked to resign. Dierdorf and Schuessler were not fully forthcoming until their second interviews with federal authorities more than a month after the assault. Schuessler later testified before a federal grand jury and was a key witness in the detective’s sentencing hearing. Her prior inconsistent statements, however, subjected her to impeachment. Ultimately, the detective and Worrell were convicted of federal crimes. The chief disciplinary counsel’s office subsequently began disciplinary proceedings against Dierdorf and Schuessler. Following evidentiary hearings, a disciplinary hearing panel found Dierdorft and Schuessler violated rules of professional conduct but found mitigating factors and recommended both Dierdorf and Schuessler be reprimanded. The chief disciplinary counsel rejected the recommendations. The cases are consolidated for opinion.
The appropriate discipline for Dierdorf is an indefinite suspension with no leave to apply for reinstatement for three years. Her dishonest conduct undermines the public’s confidence in not only the circuit attorney’s office but also prosecutors in general and goes to her fitness to practice law. Further, she committed her acts while serving as an assistant circuit attorney. Further, public prosecutors are officers of the state with a duty to consider the public interest in the fair administration of justice and ensure criminal laws are administered honestly and impartially. Mitigating circumstances do not outweigh Dierdorf’s dishonesty, selfish motive, multiple offenses or the vulnerability of the victim being assaulted...
The appropriate discipline for Schuessler is an indefinite suspension with no leave to apply for reinstatement for two years. In her role as an assistant circuit attorney, she violated the public’s trust when failing to report the assault after learning of it firsthand and making light of the assault by demeaning the victim with her racist and homophobic slur. Her repeated lies and omissions interfered with and prolonged the criminal investigation of the detective. Her punishment is mitigated by certain factors, including her reporting of the detective’s and Worrell’s misconduct.
The attorneys and other close office friends had attended at St. Louis Cardinals game
While there, [colleague] Ms. Worrell received a telephone call from a detective with the St. Louis police department, Thomas "Tom" Carroll. Ms. Worrell and Det. Carroll had a close, personal relationship. They talked frequently on the telephone, socialized outside of work, and were training together for a marathon. Det. Carroll called because his daughter’s vehicle had been broken into and her credit card stolen. Later that night, a suspect was apprehended with the daughter’s credit card.
The next day
On speakerphone, Det. Carroll proceeded to describe how he beat up the suspect who stole his daughter’s credit card. He explained that he punched the suspect in the face and kicked the suspect while he was in a holding cell. He further stated he hit the suspect in the back with a chair and stuck a gun in the suspect’s mouth. Ms. Schuessler then made the comment, "I bet that’s not the first big, black thing he’s had in his mouth." Det. Carroll and Ms. Worrell laughed. After the conversation ended, Ms. Schuessler did not report Det. Carroll’s assault of the suspect to her supervisors.
That afternoon, Ms. Worrell went to the warrant office even though she was not assigned to the warrant office that day. She issued charges against the suspect Det. Carroll assaulted, including a felony charge for fleeing custody.
And the next
Ms. Dierdorf then went to Ms. Schuessler’s office. Ms. Collins was also in Ms. Schuessler’s office. Ms. Dierdorf came in and said, "Bliss really messed up." She then told Ms. Schuessler and Ms. Collins that Ms. Worrell went to the warrant office to intercept the warrant application for the suspect beat up by Det. Carroll. She further stated the suspect was falsely charged with fleeing custody to explain why the suspect was injured. In response, Ms. Schuessler stated, "We could get in trouble just for knowing this." Ms. Dierdorf responded, "How would they find out. I’m not going to say anything."
After Ms. Dierdorf left the office, Ms. Collins and Ms. Schuessler checked the OCA database to see if the suspect had been charged. Their check revealed the suspect had been charged with a felony for fleeing custody. Ms. Schuessler expressed concern that an innocent man could go to jail for a crime he did not commit. Ms. Schuessler was hesitant to report Ms. Worrell’s conduct because Ms. Schuessler and Ms. Dierdorf were roommates. But when Ms. Collins indicated she was going to report the incident to their supervisor, Ms. Barrett, Ms. Schuessler went with her to Ms. Barrett’s office. Ms. Collins informed Ms. Barrett that she believed Ms. Worrell had filed false charges against a suspect whom Det. Carroll had assaulted while in custody...
That evening, Ms. Dierdorf drove Ms. Worrell home. During the drive, Ms. Worrell spoke with Det. Carroll on a cell phone about how people found out about the assault and the charges. After Ms. Dierdorf dropped off Ms. Worrell, Ms. Dierdorf and Ms. Doe exchanged text messages. During the text conversation, Ms. Doe asked, "If they determine Bliss knew it was a false police report can any charges be brought against bliss/the cops. I hope she understands if we distance ourselves." Ms. Dierdorf responded, "Yes they can."
Internal Affairs got involved and Dierdorf was offered resignation rather than termination but
After Ms. Dierdorf resigned, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the United States attorney’s office were brought into the investigation. On August 11, 2014, the FBI interviewed Ms. Dierdorf. Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) Harold "Hal" Goldsmith was present for the interview.
Both eventually admitted to giving false information.
As to Bliss Worrell and the detective
Det. Carroll pleaded guilty to deprivation of rights under color of state law, 18 U.S.C. § 242. At his sentencing hearing, Det. Carroll disputed he used a gun during the assault of the suspect. Ms. Schuessler was called to testify. During her testimony, Ms. Schuessler was impeached because of her prior inconsistent statements to her supervisors, IAD, and the FBI. The sentencing judge determined Det. Carroll used a gun during the assault and enhanced Det. Carroll’s sentence to 52 months in prison.
Ms. Worrell pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony, 18 U.S.C. § 4. She was sentenced to 18 months of probation. She was later disbarred by this Court.
The opinion is linked here.
A story on the Worrell disbarment linked here. (Mike Frisch)