Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce Wants an Army of Engaged Citizens
Prosecutor to the People
Photography by Whitney Curtis
"Good idea to report to jail to finish community-service hours. Bad idea to bring weed with you. Lamoris Johnson charged.”
“Go Irish! Go Irish! Go Irish!”
“Tip of the Day: When you are on trial for murder, don’t scream “I should have killed all you m**f**s!!” in open court.”
“Just back from windy neighborhood walk. Saw man valiantly blowing leaves off his lawn. Bless his heart.”
Those are tweets from Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, the city’s elected prosecutor, who has amassed almost 2,000 followers in her nearly two years on Twitter. Her tone is often serious, sometimes snarky, but never dull, as she switches from announcing murder charges or celebrating a rape conviction to cheering on the University of Notre Dame football team or complaining about the courthouse’s mouse infestation.
Her supporters say that she’s promoting transparency, giving the public a peek at the inner workings of the criminal-justice system. Critics argue that she’s unfairly disparaging defendants before they’ve been convicted of a crime and possibly influencing prospective jurors. But while the courts hold the accused to be innocent until proven guilty, Joyce makes no such presumption. “If I charge you, I think you’re guilty,” she says bluntly.
“That’s disturbing,” says defense attorney Chet Pleban, who has an unrelated lawsuit pending against Joyce. “The Constitution tells us that people are presumed innocent… She is throwing the Constitution under the bus.” While he admits that Joyce is a “very good lawyer” and says she has every right to believe the people she charges are guilty, he also thinks she should prove it beyond a reasonable doubt before announcing it on Twitter.
Joyce explains her side of the argument while sitting at a circular table in her spacious office in the Carnahan Courthouse. Between the gray December weather, the long security line, and the waiting room’s scuzzy carpet and crud-caked windows, the Circuit Attorney’s Office can be a dreary place. But Joyce gives it life, her quiet, reserved demeanor belying a sharp wit and goofy sense of humor. An even 50 years old, she has bright blue eyes, a button nose, and a neat bob hairdo that give her a girlish charm. But talk to her for a few minutes, and you’ll see that she’s just as tough as everybody says.
She started tweeting early in 2011, after reading a couple of books on the subject. The idea was to address what Joyce sees as the biggest problem facing her office: “The No. 1reason we can’t hold people accountable is because someone from the public isn’t getting involved,” she says. Prosecutions stall because witnesses don’t show up to court. People in crime-ridden neighborhoods keep quiet, thinking the system would fail them anyway. They hear about wrongful convictions in the news, and the skepticism grows, trust erodes. “I started to realize that probably I owned some of that because I wasn’t doing everything I could to help people understand how the criminal-justice system works,” she says.
So Joyce began using social media to tell the stories of dedicated cops, tough prosecutors, and resilient victims. On Twitter, she bragged about putting “bad guys” behind bars. On Facebook, her staff wrote profiles of the courthouse’s “unsung heroes,” including a public defender. She posted fact sheets about avoiding Internet fraud and keeping your car safe from burglars on her website, circuitattorney.org.
Add it up, and Joyce is practically running a news bureau, providing comprehensive, if one-sided, dispatches from the courthouse with an immediacy unmatched by traditional media. “The [Post-Dispatch] does a story if the police commit a crime,” Joyce says. “They don’t do a story about the tens of thousands of other times, where the police officer has been up for 30 hours getting the bad guy and making the streets safer. They don’t tell those stories, so that’s what I try to do.”
It’s something that happens often in movies, but rarely in reality: Jennifer Joyce remembers the exact moment when her life changed.
She grew up on the city’s southwest side. Her father, Jack Joyce, was a World War II veteran, a lawyer, and the alderman for the 23rd Ward. He died when she was 10, and eventually, her mother, Nellene Joyce, took over his seat.
As Joyce describes herself, she was “pretty carefree” and “not the best student or the most serious person in the world.” At 16, she wanted to drop out of Bishop DuBourg High School, inspired by her best friend, who had done the same. “Her mom let her drop out,” Joyce says. “She was working at Walgreens, and in my view, living the dream. She didn’t have to get up and go to school. She had folding money.”
Joyce carefully explained to her own mom how the pros of dropping out far outweighed the cons.
Her mom simply said, “No.”
“Mom, you’re not even going to discuss this?” Joyce protested. “You’re so closed-minded!”
“No,” her mother repeated. “You’re going to college.”
Joyce did as her mother said, but with little enthusiasm. At 21, she was taking a basket-weaving class, “literally,” at Harris-Stowe State University and pulling a C.
Then it happened.
Her mother brought Joyce and her siblings to the law office where her father used to practice. His old partner sat the family down in the conference room. “What is this?” Joyce remembers thinking. It was then that she learned her mother had end-stage ovarian cancer. They were there to discuss a trust that would take care of the family, but the legal jargon sounded like a foreign language.
“Chronologically, I was 21, but really I was going on 14,” Joyce says. “I had to quickly realize that, wow, there are not going to be any adults in my life. I need to start being a grown-up myself.”
Because she wanted to be able to look after her mother’s estate, she decided to become a lawyer and enrolled at Saint Louis University, where she earned straight A’s through her undergraduate courses and law school. At night, she and her friends would gather around the TV to watch L.A. Law and shout “Objection!” at the screen. “It was so dorky,” she says, smirking.
Afterward, she got a job in the litigation department of Peper, Martin, Jensen, Maichel, and Hetlage. But four years later, she wanted more. “I felt like I was missing something in my life,” she says. The firm brought in regular guest speakers to give presentations to the associates. Columnist Bill McClellan talked about his book Evidence of Murder, detailing the famous Ed Post trial.
Joyce was inspired and decided to take a job at the Circuit Attorney’s Office. It was a major culture shock: Her pay dropped by more than half, and she went from having an office on the 27th floor, overlooking the Arch, to sharing a cramped room with three other lawyers. On her first day, she was handed a legal pad; when she asked where her computer was, coworkers laughed.
Joyce started out prosecuting misdemeanors, but her first jury trial was quite serious. “A group of women ganged up on another woman,” Joyce says. “I still don’t understand why it was charged as a misdemeanor, because it was a pretty serious assault. They actually had a tire iron and were beating her with that.”
The weekend before the trial, Joyce played the 911 tape hundreds of times. Now, nearly 20 years later, she can still hear it in her head.
“I just became obsessed with that trial,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that I had thought of every possible thing. It turned out to be a guilty verdict, so I was very pleased.”
Joyce worked her way up through the office, moving from misdemeanors to drug cases to sex crimes and finally to homicide. Because her parents were aldermen, Joyce grew up around politics, working the polls as a kid, but she says running for circuit attorney didn’t appeal to her. “It never crossed my mind as something that I would ever, ever, ever want to do,” she says.
That is, until Dee Joyce-Hayes, her predecessor, decided not to run for reelection. “Then I was talking it over with some friends and realized how much this office meant to me,” Joyce says. “I was worried that somebody would take over the office who would not have the same kind of love for the work that I did.”
She was elected to her first term in 2000 and has been reelected three times since, most recently this past November. During the last two cycles, she ran unopposed. “I highly recommend that,” she quips. Some have speculated that her social-media persona is a sign that Joyce aspires to higher office, possibly state attorney general, but she doesn’t sound too eager to recast herself as a political challenger. “I just don’t really enjoy politics that much,” she says. “I love being a prosecutor. Politics is not the driver for me.”
Then again, Joyce is a goal-oriented person. Each year, she makes a list. She’s learned ballroom dancing, taken up the banjo, and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Who knows what she might want to accomplish in 2016? For now, at least, she seems to be focused on smaller battles than a run for statewide office.
“Learn how to load the dishwasher to my husband’s satisfaction,” she says, reading from a list on her iPad. “That’s kind of a smartass goal.”
Joyce is not without her critics. Mary Fox, who leads the local public defender’s office, declined to comment for this story, but she has accused Joyce of being too unwilling to compromise in the past. Several concerned observers have pointed out that a large percentage of the people Joyce charges with crimes are young black men.
But she argues that the numbers reflect a larger socioeconomic problem. She simply prosecutes the cases that the police bring her. “It would be an absurd situation indeed if we would say to the officer, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve already prosecuted three black defendants,’” she says. “‘Perhaps if you would bring a Bosnian.’”
At least one lawyer who’s faced Joyce came away impressed. Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, says Joyce initially opposed his group’s efforts. But as the Innocence Project began to use DNA evidence to overturn convictions, she came around to its cause, eventually doing an independent review of 1,400 old cases to see whether DNA testing could help the defense.
“She doesn’t always agree with me, but she’s open to persuasion,” Scheck says. “If she is persuaded, she’ll change her mind. That’s not only a good quality in a prosecutor; it’s a good quality in a human being.”
Circuit Judge Jack Garvey agrees. In 2011, the death of a federal deputy marshal in a shootout with a fugitive convinced Garvey that the police, circuit attorney, and judiciary weren’t doing a good enough job of talking to one another. So he worked with Joyce and Chief of Police Dan Isom to open the lines of communication. “That’s really where I learned a lot about her,” Garvey says. “She’s tough, but she’s pragmatic, and she’s willing to bend, if it’s for the greater good.”
If there were a Jennifer Joyce fan club, former U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway might be president. “She’s the best,” Hanaway says. In 1990, they started on the same day at Peper, Martin and had offices next to each other. “The level of professionalism that she’s brought to the Circuit Attorney’s Office is unparalleled in other major metropolitan areas,” Hanaway continues. “The city of St. Louis is just very lucky to have a professional of her abilities who is willing to be a public servant. I mean, you talk about somebody who could be making buckets of money in the private sector. Instead, she’s put those talents to use trying to keep the people of St. Louis safe.”
Though her Twitter feed draws most of the attention, Joyce’s most important strides toward community engagement have come offline. On December 13, her office hosted a celebration to honor participants in the Neighborhood Ownership Model, which started as a grass-roots effort in Lafayette Square and has grown, with help from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the Circuit Attorney’s Office, to include about half the city.
A diverse group of citizen crime-fighters—young and old, rich and poor, black and white, a burly man with a ponytail and a nun in a habit—crowded into a courtroom to hear Joyce and her staff commend them on their work.
For anyone who hears “neighborhood watch” and thinks of vigilantes eager to pull a gun on the first person who looks mildly suspicious, Joyce notes that participants—whether they’re helping patrol the streets, supporting victims, or speaking out in court—are given thorough training from police, social workers, and attorneys.
Alderman Antonio French of the 21st Ward has seen the impact of the program firsthand. In the summer of 2011, during a heat wave, a single robber struck several homes on the same block, taking parts out of air-conditioners or swiping the units altogether. “Cases like that, that’s why people lose faith in the system,” French says. Police might never apprehend the culprit, and if they do, he could pay $100 and be right back out on the street.
But this case was different. A group of women trained in the Neighborhood Ownership Model took a special interest in catching the AC burglar. “Because so many of them called and made reports,” French says, “the police increased patrols.” The cops caught the guy in the middle of the night—and that was only the beginning. The women came to the suspect’s bond hearing, all dressed in yellow shirts. When the judge asked for community comments, the eldest of the group got up on her cane and explained how sitting in 100-degree heat had adversely affected her medical conditions. “This guy got something like a $25,000, cash-only bond,” French recalls, chuckling. “When he saw them stand up there, boy, you should have seen the look on his face. He was like, ‘What the what? Oh no!’”
As French sees it, getting one guy like that off the street can completely change a neighborhood. “It’s usually just a small group of people, percentagewise, in our community that are causing all the trouble,” he says. “The reason we have perpetual crime is because they keep getting away with it.”
Violent crime in St. Louis is a problem that is nowhere near resolved, but French says that because of Joyce and the Neighborhood Ownership Model, he feels confident, for the first time, telling people that if they participate in the system, it will work for them. By sending attorneys out into the community to work as liaisons, Joyce made it less intimidating, frustrating, and time-consuming to get involved. “These ladies are out there telling their other neighbors, ‘Look, girl, I’m telling you, I’ve seen it work, and we put that sucker away,’” French says. “They are very proud of themselves.”
He credits Joyce for that, and in turn, the prosecutor turns the attention back toward those citizens. On her desk, she keeps a picture of L.C. Lakes, a man who lived in a dangerous area, but who knew everybody in the community, had home phone numbers for city officials, and used those relationships to keep his block safe.
“It’s like you could draw a circle around his house, and there was this zone of no crime in the middle of this really high-crime area,” Joyce says. “He’s the one that demonstrated to me first the power of an engaged citizenry in keeping a neighborhood safe.”
Or as she put it on Twitter: “Involved citizens = bad news for the bad guys!”