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Jun 30

The Homicide Ticker: Some good news amid the grim reality of violence

Posted on June 30, 2023 at 12:29 PM by Jean Peters Baker

By Jean Peters Baker

Prosecutor’s offices have long been known as a black box for information. To combat that, my office launched in 2021 a set of dashboards to show our work. Today, we are attempting to shine a brighter light on our work with the unveiling of a new feature on our website. Our goal is to better inform the public of the grim and increasing toll of violence in Kansas City. Across the top of the website a Homicide Ticker or banner will detail the status of the violence.

This banner will show:

  •       The number of homicides that have occurred in 2023 in my jurisdiction, Kansas City within Jackson County, along with other jurisdictions in the county.
  •       How many 2023 homicide cases have been referred to our office from the police departments within Jackson County for criminal charges.
  •        How many of those cases have been filed and charged.

Today’s banner shows 88 homicides in Kansas City within Jackson County. Of those 88, 38.6% or 34 have been referred to our office for charges by KCPD, and criminal charges have been filed by my office in 82.4% or 28 of those case.

This data will be updated weekly. A link will be provided to our office’s Violence Dashboard, which provides more detail, including maps, about homicides and non-fatal shootings in Kansas City. We will soon add information on eastern Jackson communities . Here is a link to that Violence Dashboard:

It is important to make this information easily available and easy to understand. This is especially true when violence spikes. The citizens of Kansas City will want to know how we are responding to this violence. I want to show them we are doing our jobs.

I am also proud to highlight that my office in 2023 – a particularly difficult year -- is charging a higher percentage of homicide cases. Of the 34 homicide cases referred to our office by KCPD for charges so far[ in 2023, 28 or 82.4 percent have been charged. (Clearance and prosecution data from our Eastern Jackson County jurisdictions will be substantially higher, however, we do not believe it is fair to compare suburban with urban jurisdictions). This data is updated as of June 25, 2023, just following the frightening multi-casualty event at 57th and Prospect Avenue. It should be noted that this database may slightly undercount homicides because persons initially listed as an assault victim and later die of their injuries are counted for a time as a non-fatal shooting victim until the data is updated. 

This 82.4 percent filing rate is high, but it is not unexpected. Over the last seven years, 2017-2023, our office has filed on average 71 percent of homicides sent to us by KCPD. Such high filing rates cannot be achieved without a partner. KCPD detectives deserve much credit. It should be noted that homicide cases are reviewed in a room full of seasoned prosecutors and detectives who investigated them. Even when consensus is not reached on filing, we do not stop working. Professionals are taught to manage disagreement without being disagreeable while finding ways to gather additional evidence so that a chance of justice can be sought.

There are some who may proclaim that 82.4 percent or 71 percent is too little. Why not charge every homicide presented to our office by a KCPD detective?

As a seasoned prosecutor, I know that 100 percent is the wrong goal and a dangerous one. First, some homicides today are lawful in Missouri. At times, the shooter is protected from prosecution under Missouri’s self-defense laws, which have been greatly broadened in recent years. I have frequently warned of the dangers of excessively broadening these laws, but in our political climate, those warnings were not heeded. And though I disagree with the extent of self-defense laws in Missouri, I am bound as a judicial officer to follow them.

We are confronted in nearly every case with a grim fact –nearly everyone today is armed. That is a significant change from when I started this job. More firearms came with the repeal of our Carry and Conceal Law. The loss of that law has proven difficult for police to address violence before the harm has occurred. At times it seems like the cards are stacked against detectives and prosecutors. But prosecutors in this office have adapted and they are very skilled in their trial work. We have devised a training program for prosecutors on how to manage the self-defense jury instruction and we send prosecutors to the scene of each homicide so they can begin to work the case immediately. Sadly, we have become skilled because we receive more experience than any other prosecutor in the region.

I have another, shorter answer why seeking a 100 percent file rate is the wrong goal: Kevin Strickland.

Every conviction must be fair and just and supported by credible and admissible evidence. And it must be certain. Aiming for 100 percent is not the goal of a “minister of justice.” Charges should come when the evidence demonstrates proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That is our criminal justice system’s highest standard, and it means no reasonable shred of doubt exists that the defendant may be innocent.

We do not file criminal charges when we believe the evidence can only establish a lower level of proof: Probable Cause. At that lower level, the evidence is just enough to support law enforcement's suspicion of a crime. But more importantly, filing under the low threshold of probable cause would have catastrophic outcomes. Even when the prosecutor can demonstrate probable cause to 12 jurors and the jurors seek to convict, they are duty bound to acquit by law. And acquittals bar us from trying that person again for that homicide even when new evidence comes to light.

Pursuing justice is not for the faint of heart. We won’t receive convictions on every case that we file, but our conviction rate is also high and dismissals are rare.

Put more simply, filing cases at probable cause is not ethical and not a winning strategy. Cases do not get better with time, especially when the evidence is too thin to start.

Dive into this data. I hope you come away with a more robust understanding of how well the justice system in Jackson County is doing. I will be posting a 2019 homicide analysis later today and soon I will update with more recent data on our outcomes. Here’s how I’d summarize what you will find from studying seven years of data you can find in our Violence Dashboard: 

  •         Slightly more than half the time, police detectives in KCPD have enough evidence to send a homicide case to my office for a prosecutor to review for charges. 
  •         Nearly eight in 10 of those cases is charged.

That’s a strong message: If you get caught for a homicide in KC, you’re very likely to be charged and convicted.

A final point: Don’t expect a light sentence. Here are a few sentences just from the past three months:

Vontez Howard, 26, was sentenced this month to 60 years in prison for a double murder conviction.

Gerald R. Robinson II, 24, was sentenced this month to 29 years in prison for a murder conviction.

And 47-year-old Victor Sykes will finish his life in prison following his murder convictions in March. He was sentenced to life without parole. 


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