Killing of Missouri Woman Raises Concerns About Bail Reform

ST. LOUIS (CN) – Samuel Scott spent five days in the St. Louis city jail on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge claiming he hit his wife, Marcia Johnson, in January.

On April 9, a California-based nonprofit organization called The Bail Project posted his $5,000 bond. Scott, 54, was also served with an order of protection the same day.

Instead of honoring the order, Scott allegedly brutally beat Johnson, who was found unconscious at around 11 p.m. that night. She died from her injuries several days later.

Scott is now charged with first-degree murder.

The incident sparked outrage in the St. Louis community. Many blamed The Bail Project, which says its goal is to pay bail for people in need and restore the presumption of innocence. Others wondered why Scott was held on just a $5,000 bond with an alleged history of violence.

In an era where reform advocates in the justice community are trying to abolish the cash bond system, which they claim unfairly jails poor people who are unable to afford low bonds due to their socioeconomic disadvantage, the Scott story has put a new twist on the balance between victims’ rights and the rights of the accused.

‘A Whole Other Ballgame’

Jaszmine Parks is a legal advocate in the domestic violence community. She acknowledges that there are certain crimes where the cash bond system is unfair to impoverished defendants, but domestic violence charges carry an extra risk due to the inherently violent nature of the crimes, even if those charges are misdemeanors.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell recently announced that his office will not prosecute people on charges relating to low amounts of marijuana possession. Parks said that crime has a totally different dynamic than a domestic violence charge.

“It’s not just this is a bad relationship, these two people aren’t good for each other,” she said in an interview. “At the heart to domestic violence is about control over a person’s body, their mind, their finances, things like that. So when you’re dealing with a situation like that it’s very different than somebody selling weed.”

Parks added, “It’s about a person that for some reason decided that they are entitled to the body and the mind and the finances of another person and that’s a whole other ballgame. I think that requires people really understanding the nature and dynamics not just of domestic violence, but sexual violence and human trafficking. It’s not just about money or it’s just a bad relationship. It comes down to domination and trying to consume them and that’s the dangerous part.”

The St. Louis area domestic violence community is trying to use the tragedy of Johnson’s death as a teaching tool for the public. One in four American women will be involved in an abusive relationship and the lethality rate for a domestic violence victim goes up seven times when the abuser is served with an order of protection, as Scott was right before he was released.

And domestic violence knows no socioeconomic, race or even gender boundaries. Wealthy and poor women have an equal chance at becoming victims and men are at risk too, as one in nine of them are victims of domestic violence, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“There’s something about our society and something about our relationships and masculinity and femininity that culminates into this form of domination,” Parks said. “And until we begin to acknowledge that and the roots of it, I think domestic violence and sexual violence is not going to go away.”

Bail Disruptors

The Bail Project is a national social justice group whose mission is “to combat racial and economic disparities in the bail system.”

Since coming to St. Louis, project members who call themselves “bail disruptors” have provided free bail assistance to 841 low-income people in St. Louis City and 578 in St. Louis County, assisting a total of 1,419, according to figures the organization provided to Courthouse News.

The Bail Project has spent $2.9 million in bail payments in the St. Louis area to date and $600,000 has already been returned to the group as cases close. Over 94% of those assisted returned for their court dates and over 50% of cases in the city have been dismissed, according to the organization.

The nonprofit says it focuses on relatively low bail amounts – $5,000 and under – to maximize the impact of the funds and assist the most people possible. The median bond amount in St. Louis is $25,000.

The issue of combating the cash bond system in the St. Louis region has become a hot-button topic, especially after the Ferguson protests in 2014 following the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man.

One of the byproducts of the reform stemming from those protests was a push to abolish the cash bond system, which advocates claim unfairly targets the poor, especially black men and women, who can’t afford modest bail amounts for low-risk crimes such as misdemeanor marijuana possession and forces them to remain in jail for extended periods of time until their trial.

ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit legal group, recently claimed in a lawsuit that the average defendant is held in St. Louis Medium Security Institution, known as “the Workhouse,” for 291 days while awaiting trial. ArchCity did not respond for a request for comment for this article.

The Blame Game

The Bail Project faced an immediate public backlash once news of Johnson’s death broke.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an editorial titled, “Accused assailant exits jail, thanks to the Bail Project. Then a victim dies.”

In the editorial, the Post does state that in many circumstances The Bail Project’s actions to level the playing field for poor defendants is praiseworthy. Then the editorial asked, “But what happens when this well-meaning effort backfires as it did on April 9?”

The Riverfront Times, a weekly St. Louis newspaper, took a dramatically different stance. In a column titled, “Don’t Blame The Bail Project for Marcia Johnson’s Murder,” the Times characterizes the organization as more of an ATM than a judge.

The Times said the responsibility to protect society from those considered a security threat or a flight risk lies with the judge, who sets bond acting with input from prosecutors and police.

So why was the bond for Scott set at $5,000 instead of the median amount of $25,000?

The Times claims, through an unnamed police source, that the low bond was the judge’s way of making sure Scott would stay in jail. The theory was that considering Scott’s inability to pay, the bond would be sufficient enough to keep Scott in jail, as part of a passive-aggressive bail system designed to keep a defendant jailed without appearing too harsh.

The Times claims The Bail Project simply “inadvertently messed with the natural order of things in St. Louis” by bailing out a guy charged with a misdemeanor that carries the same penalty as shoplifting.

The Bail Project declined a request for an interview.

Parks, the domestic violence legal advocate, isn’t interested in pointing fingers. She just wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

She said the St. Louis county and city courts are actually really good at handling domestic violence cases and are a part of Court Watch, a nationwide program helping courts effectively handle such cases.

“It’s having people like myself who work in domestic violence and are educated about it and they invite us to go sit in on adult abuse hearings, look at what’s happening and give recommendations to the judge, to the court and to the Justice Department,” Parks said. “They really do look at it. The city and the county have both established domestic violence fatality review panels. They are going to see maybe in the case of Ms. Johnson, this ended up in being a fatality so let’s take this case and look at where we messed up so this doesn’t happen again.”

The Aftermath

Scott will be tried for murder. If found guilty, he will spend the rest of his days behind bars. His name will fade from public memory and so will his case as the news cycle moves on to the next atrocity.

But should the case, and the circumstances surrounding it, become just another case number to the justice system?

St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner hopes some lessons can be learned. She said in a statement that she had scheduled a meeting with The Bail Project last week to discuss the events and what can be learned from it. The meeting didn’t take place, but Gardner said she is working to reschedule it.

“As a part of my criminal justice reform strategy to improve public safety and reduce long-term harm to our community and families, I share the desire to reduce the number of people who are unnecessarily held incarcerated prior [to] trial,” Gardner said in a statement. “This, however, must be done in a manner that also reduces the potential of harm to victims.”

Gardner plans to make several recommendations during the meeting.

“I will ask The Bail Project to review the public court records of each person for whom they want to post bail prior to any action taken on their part,” she said. “If all of the charging documents were reviewed by The Bail Project, they would have seen the safety concerns of the victim, prosecutors and courts. This information would have given The Bail Project an appreciation for the level of risk associated in the case.”

She said she will also ask The Bail Project to contact her office for domestic violence and victim cases before posting bail to decide if there are any safety concerns.

Gardner said this will allow her office to balance the rights of the accused with the interest of public safety and victims’ rights.

“While I can’t force The Bail Project to abide by these requests, I do believe we all have an obligation to put victims’ safety first in all of our decisions to reduce harm,” she said.

The Bail Project did not address a possible meeting with Gardner in an email correspondence.

Parks hopes meaningful dialogue can take place and provide an opportunity to educate all of the parties involved in the justice system on the risks of domestic violence cases.

“I’m hoping The Bail Project will be open to working with the domestic violence community and really acknowledge that there were some unintended consequences and we really need to learn about this,” Parks said.

She added, “There is no such thing as a perfect victim or a perfect abuser. I truly believe that [Scott] could have been marginalized or a victim of a certain form of policing and a justice system that does penalize poverty and at the same time he was an abuser and he was a violent person and we saw what happened. It’s going to be hard to try to decide, ‘Who deserves this more?’”

(Editor’s note: Courthouse News reporter Joe Harris is in a relationship with someone who works for a domestic violence shelter in St. Louis.)

%d bloggers like this: