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St. Clair County focuses new unit on serious crime

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 4, 2011 - For a few cases each year, some St. Clair County prosecutors will be on the standard 24-7 on-call schedule of the police. In recent months, a member of a new Violent Crime Unit has responded with police to a rolling gun battle in Parkfield Terrace and another to a drug trafficking stop at the Missouri border.

When Brendan Kelly took office as the St. Clair County state's attorney in December, he wanted to change the local system "in a way that's really outside the standard process for the prosecutor's role in a case."

Kelly brought in new people and called on veteran prosecutors to create a Violent Crime Unit. This approach will bring the people who will have to try cases into the investigation quickly. Kelly borrowed from and shared ideas with St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.

Kelly explains that having one attorney involved throughout the process can improve the chance of putting a criminal away as opposed to having an attorney involved at the warrant stage, another during forensic review and a third actually prosecuting the case.

"That's why it's called vertical prosecution because the same prosecutor will be involved with the same case," said Kelly. The prosecutors will each own their successes or failures from start to finish. So far, the Violent Crime Unit has tried six cases and has won convictions on them all.

Kelly realizes that the task force can't take on every criminal case, so it targets ones that are particularly troubling: hard criminal cases such as murder, attempted murder, armed robbery and sex crimes. "My office decides which cases get assigned to the VCU," said Kelly.

"My only measure of success is getting a successful conviction during the trial. You'll see as we move forward we are cautiously optimistic that we're making a dent on criminal activity here in St. Clair County," Kelly said.

Overall, Kelly said his No. 1 priority is to take care of a victim's family. The lawyers, he said, are "focused on helping the victims' family achieve some measure of justice because the harm can never be undone."

Kelly also notes that some of the deepest pockets of poverty in America exist in St. Clair County, causing some people to choose a life of criminal behavior.

"There's not enough opportunity for jobs, we had inadequate law enforcement in certain areas, we also have a culture of violence in a lot of young males resolving their issues with the use of guns," said Kelly.

He explained that "East St. Louis' per capita murder rate was nearly 20 times the national average; because of these stats we have to use every means possible to combat violent crime."

Kelly says problems may force his staff and law enforcement to be creative and find new ways to solve crimes. When explaining how his new team will interact and work together, his personality brings to mind Kevin Costner in the "Untouchables" or Sam Waterston in "Law and Order."

One observer, assistant professor of criminal justice studies at SIUE Dennis Mares, says that a benefit of having the VCU will be a closer alliance between the police department and prosecuting team.

Mike Guzy, a retired St. Louis police officer who also writes regularly for Beacon, said St. Louis does have a violent offenders task force that reports to the circuit attorney's office. But it is mainly a police operation.

"The biggest thing I wonder about is manpower. I could see this is working if a major crime happened like the National Food Massacre in which seven people were shot; something like an everyday robbery happening downtown seems like there's not enough people to handle those types of crimes," said Guzy.

One area that has pulled together area county prosecutors and U.S. attorneys is the heroin epidemic. And Guzy noted that heroin presents the type of problem that fits regional and inter-agency cooperation. "When prosecuting," he said, "they're not going to care what jurisdiction these criminals are in."

The former detective also said that having prosecutors involved from the beginning "could avoid legal pitfalls, such as seizing evidence when conducting searches."

The violent crime unit is attempting to take on more than a hundred cases according to the Belleville News-Democrat, slowly prosecuting one case at a time.

"We had to look around the country and see what other tools we could apply to help reduce the crime rate in St. Clair County," said Kelly.

For the Kelly, the VCU will be a top priority. "I don't see any threat to this" fiscally "but with the current state of government cuts you never know," he said. The initiative was financed by reworking budget allocations, not by bringing in additional funds.

Ray Carter, a rising senior at Purdue University, is a Beacon intern. 

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