“Racism exists everywhere,” David Alvey, the mayor of Kansas City, Kansas, said at a press conference in early June inside a mostly empty city hall. “But when you have racism in a place where someone has power over another individual, then it can become especially destructive and lethal.”
His comments came as protests were filling streets across the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and amid increasing calls to fundamentally change the mission and scope of law enforcement. It was time for discussion in Kansas City too, and Alvey was there to announce the creation of a local Task Force on Community and Police Relations.
The task force would include Alvey, the county sheriff, the interim chief of the city’s police department, a county commissioner, and a smattering of other local leaders. But there was one name conspicuously absent from the list: Mark Dupree, the county’s district attorney — and the first Black elected prosecutor in Kansas history. The omission quickly caught the attention of the local media. In a statement, Alvey’s office explained to the Kansas City Star that Dupree had been excluded because the task force was meant to be an “objective panel.” The group was merely gathering community input to pass on to local officials but would “not be making recommendations for change based on that input,” the paper reported. As explanations go, it was pretty weak, suggesting that no one with a point of view or ideas about specific reforms would be included.
Dupree told The Intercept that he was startled by the snub, though not entirely surprised. “It’s just wrong,” he said. “It is wrong, and it is political.” And the exclusion — and the alleged reason for it — raises fundamental questions about the purpose of the task force. If meant as a vehicle to actually reform policing, then prosecutors, who have long had a symbiotic relationship with police, must be part of the equation. Yet even as calls for policing reform increase, in many jurisdictions across the country, including Kansas City, the election of a reform prosecutor who challenges that status quo has been met with aggressive institutional pushback — most often from police agencies and cop unions.
So long as that is the case, true reform — not only of police but of the broader criminal justice system — will likely remain elusive. To Dupree, the mayor’s task force looks like an attempt to sidestep real structural change. “This is the same, old traditional way of when something happens: ‘Hey, we want to calm the masses, let’s throw a task force at it,’ wait six months, eight months, and then say, ‘Hey, we talked to you guys. Now let’s go back to business as usual,’” said Dupree. “Frankly, I’m not that type of guy.”
A Toxic Combination
To put the decision to leave Dupree off the task force in context, you have to know about Lamonte McIntyre, who was wrongly sentenced to life behind bars based on an astonishing and toxic combination of police and prosecutor misconduct. McIntyre was locked up for 23 years before finally being exonerated in 2017.
On April 15, 1994, Doniel Quinn and Donald Ewing were shot multiple times at close range as they sat in a parked Cadillac on a residential street, a contract slaying connected to the theft of drugs from a stash house. There were plenty of leads that could have helped detectives solve the crime quickly and correctly, including an eyewitness who said she knew the killer. But police never interviewed her.
Instead, they focused on 17-year-old McIntyre, who was with relatives that afternoon more than a mile from the crime scene. No evidence has ever linked McIntyre to the crime or the victims. Still, just months later, McIntyre was tried and convicted based on two witness identifications that had been coerced by police. And instead of vetting the detectives’ sloppy and truncated investigation, the prosecutor abetted it — first by taking the mess to trial, then by threatening a witness who tried to recant her identification of McIntyre before taking the stand. That prosecutor, Terra Morehead, not only failed to tell McIntyre’s defense about the witness’s recantation — as she was required by law to do — but also ushered the perjured testimony into evidence.
Instead of vetting the detectives’ sloppy investigation, the prosecutor abetted it — first by taking the mess to trial, then by threatening a witness who tried to recant.
McIntyre maintained his innocence, and for years, a team of lawyers including local attorney Cheryl Pilate, the Midwest Innocence Project, and Centurion Ministries doggedly investigated the case, ultimately determining who had committed the double murder (a foot soldier for a major dealer). They also uncovered the reason McIntyre became a suspect: He was framed by veteran Kansas City, Kansas, police detective Roger Golubski.
For decades, Golubski, who is now retired, sexually assaulted vulnerable Black women in the city — sometimes inside the precinct house — without ever facing consequences for his actions, which were well known within the police department, according to a pending federal civil rights suit. At times, the suit alleges, Golubski would stalk and harass those women — one of whom was Rose McIntyre, Lamonte’s mother. Rose rebuffed Golubski’s advances, prompting the detective, aided by colleagues, to retaliate by framing her son. “Rose repeatedly rejected Golubski’s advances, but his harassment did not stop. She was forced to move to a new home and change her telephone number to avoid him,” reads the lawsuit. “By moving, Rose thought that she had permanently escaped Golubski and prevented him from ever harming her or her family again. She was wrong. Several years later, Golubski orchestrated the wrongful conviction of her son Lamonte.”
In legal filings, Golubski has denied the accusations and tried to have the case dismissed. A federal judge blocked that effort and a trial is slated for March 2022. Golubski’s attorneys did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.
When Dupree finally dug into McIntyre’s case, he was horrified. He agreed with defense lawyers that the conviction was a “manifest injustice,” clearing the way for McIntyre’s release from prison in late 2017.
The case prompted Dupree to set up a conviction integrity unit, also a first in Kansas. “The Lamonte McIntyre case really opened my eyes to how in-depth this can run,” he said. “It said to me, if there is one case, there are more.”
“The Lamonte McIntyre case really opened my eyes. … It said to me, if there is one case, there are more.”
Not everyone was thrilled; both the sheriff and the police chief — at the time, a man named Terry Zeigler, who was a former partner of Golubski’s — joined police union officials to pen a letter to state Attorney General Derek Schmidt in an attempt to stop Dupree. In agreeing that McIntyre’s case should be overturned, they wrote, Dupree’s office “failed to fulfill its role as an advocate for the homicide victim(s) and the state in this case.” Allowing the district attorney unfettered discretion to review old cases was causing them “great concern,” and they asked Schmidt to provide “oversight” of whatever actions Dupree’s conviction integrity unit might take.
A group of criminal justice leaders from across the country organized by Fair and Just Prosecution pushed back. “Elected prosecutors should not be expected to await the actions of others to correct legal wrongs; indeed, they are ethically required to proactively address such issues,” the group wrote in a letter to the Kansas City Board of Commissioners, which was considering Dupree’s request to fund the unit. “These obligations to the pursuit of justice and the exercise of independent judgment are not, as some have claimed, at odds with community safety or victim support. In fact, victims are safer … when communities trust that their law enforcement officials seek the truth rather than a ‘win.’”
While Schmidt didn’t take any direct action to intervene in Dupree’s conviction integrity unit, he made a sideswipe at the prosecutor in 2019, saying that McIntyre should be denied compensation for his wrongful conviction because there wasn’t sufficient evidence to demonstrate that he was innocent. Schmidt ultimately dropped his opposition in February, and McIntyre was awarded $1.5 million.
Dupree said he was “appalled” by the pushback from the community’s other law enforcement leaders. “I do not understand how anyone who can take the oath to make sure public safety is number one and to uphold integrity can, literally, flat-footedly stand against … integrity.”
Obstacles to Change
Of course, Dupree isn’t the first progressive prosecutor to face pushback for challenging the law enforcement status quo. In St. Louis, Missouri, the city’s first Black elected prosecutor, Kim Gardner, has weathered racist attacks for her efforts at reform, while state Attorney General Eric Schmitt waged a legal battle against her efforts to free an innocent man. More recently, Schmitt attacked Gardner in connection with protests against police violence, falsely accusing her of letting “looters and rioters” go unpunished.
Next door in St. Louis County, news that Wesley Bell had beat the incumbent prosecuting attorney to become the county’s first Black elected prosecutor prompted lawyers in his office to seek to join the police union. State officials subsequently sought to grant the AG power to prosecute cases Bell might seek to dismiss. State lawmakers in Pennsylvania have similarly tried to wrest power from DA Larry Krasner. Former Florida Gov. Rick Scott moved two dozen cases out of the office of Aramis Ayala — the state’s first Black elected prosecutor — after she said she would decline to seek the death penalty. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court shot down the efforts of four male elected district attorneys to intervene in a case that is being handled by Suffolk County’s first female elected prosecutor, Rachael Rollins, about whether young adults should face sentences of life without parole. Rollins called the move “nothing more than a misogynistic wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Most recently, after Santa Clara County, California, DA Jeff Rosen announced a robust package of reforms that his office would implement, the police union was quick to act. Rosen said he would stop seeking the death penalty, which the union called “reckless.” And in response to his decision to no longer prosecute standalone cases of “resisting arrest,” which disproportionately impact the county’s small Black population, the union blustered that the plan would “purposely” escalate confrontations between police and the public.
(A similar vitriol has also been leveled at Dupree. An editorial published this week in the Kansas City Star essentially accuses Dupree of creating a rise in violent crime and leans heavily on former prosecutors — one of whom fought against efforts to exonerate Lamonte McIntyre — and a current political opponent to make its case.)
Nor is Dupree the first to be left out of broad discussions of race and police reform in the wake of Floyd’s murder. In June, when President Donald Trump showed up in Dallas for a discussion of policing, he failed to invite the city’s progressive DA John Creuzot — though, to be fair, Trump left all three of the city’s top law enforcement officers off his guest list: Creuzot, the Dallas police chief, and the county sheriff, all of whom are Black. Indeed, a skewed set of priorities and lack of diversity on the administration’s recently created Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice are in part what prompted the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to sue to halt its work. Of the commission’s 18 members, just four are people of color and just six are women. All 18 are current or former members of law enforcement. Among the topics the group is directed to address is the need to promote “respect” for police.
A group of 75 criminal justice leaders and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, organized by Fair and Just Prosecution and American Oversight, have signed on to an amicus brief in the case. “A flawed process aimed at guiding the future of policing is the last thing a nation in crisis needs at this critical moment in time,” they wrote.
Leaving reformers out of these conversations — let alone harassing or deriding them — is just “cutting off your nose to spite your face,” said Miriam Krinsky, FJP’s executive director, who was a prosecutor for more than a decade. “In those tough-on-crime kind of days,” there was an assumption “that prosecutors and law enforcement are in lock step and jointly subscribed to the view that we can arrest our way out of all of society’s problems,” she said. “That just wasn’t a smart assumption. We weren’t making communities safer by what we were doing. In fact, we were causing a lot of damage — damage to individuals, damage to families, damage to communities of color and trust was getting eroded.”
“We weren’t making communities safer by what we were doing. In fact, we were causing a lot of damage.”
Reform-minded prosecutors and police leaders understand that, she said. And where prosecutors are concerned, they have been elected precisely because the communities they serve want change — a fact that law enforcement leaders, and unions, should heed. “The objective needs to be, what are we doing to strengthen our community?” she said. “What are we doing to ensure that this is a healthy community and what do measures of success and progress look like that are predicated on those sorts of objectives? Rather than number of arrests, the number of prosecutions and length of sentences, how do we create a new way of thinking about even metrics?”
First, communities have to deal with the racist foundations of the criminal justice system and then make a conscious shift toward a more equitable future, said Jamila Hodge, a former Washington, D.C., prosecutor who is now director of the Reshaping Prosecution Program at the Vera Institute of Justice. “I’ve never met a person who said, ‘I signed up to be a prosecutor because I want to lock up as many Black and brown people as possible,’” she said. “But it doesn’t take long doing the job and recognizing, like, wait a minute; there’s got to be a better way to respond to this than just do I prosecute or not prosecute? Is this conviction actually making this particular neighborhood safer? Is it really a deterrent?” These are the questions that prosecutors — and police — need to be asking.
Earlier this month, Vera announced Motion for Justice, a joint project with the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice that seeks to “disrupt, decrease and rectify the decisions and policies” that have targeted Black people and to “inspire prosecutors across the country to adopt these efforts.” Motion for Justice is piloting the new program in three jurisdictions — among them Boston, where Rollins is DA — and will provide policy recommendations, including that prosecutors should not consider a person’s past involvement with the criminal justice system in deciding how to charge or what an appropriate punishment would be, a long-standing practice that perpetuates the criminal justice system’s revolving door. They’ll also collect and analyze data on racial disparities that can be used to inform systemic change. “The law can and will be used as an instrument of change,” Rollins said. “We need that change now.”
Hodge notes that prosecutors can play an important role pushing for police reform. They can decline to charge certain cases, for example, or join police training efforts. And ideally, police and prosecutors would be working together to make the system more equitable. “We all have the goal of a safe and thriving community, it’s just that we recognize that a lot of what we’re doing is inconsistent with that,” she said. “Just because we’ve always done it doesn’t mean we have to continue to do it.” But she also notes that in jurisdictions where police have actively fought against reforms in prosecution, some strategies might not work. Where that’s the case, she said, voters who support reform need to rally their power to create additional change.
Hodge uses Gardner, the prosecutor in St. Louis, as an example. There, advocates, organizers, and voters who defend her also need to be proactive. “The same outside pressure that got her elected has to be extended to other leaders who continue to now be the obstacle to change,” Hodge said. “The reason we have this moment where we see reform-minded prosecutors running on these amazing platforms of change and then winning has been because folks have organized and said, enough; they have said enough. So, I just think the movement has to continue. Don’t stop at the lead prosecutor, now go after the mayor.”
It wasn’t long after he’d been elected DA that Dupree learned about the noose. Apparently, it was an office tradition; whenever a prosecutor’s case ended in a hung jury, they’d return to their desk to find the “noose award” there.
The only Black prosecutor in the office before Dupree took over told him, look, if that noose ever shows up on my desk, we’re going to have a problem. “That was my first time knowing about it,” Dupree told The Intercept. “It was just mind-boggling to me that that was considered OK.”
Dupree got rid of the noose. He has also instituted implicit bias training for the office’s lawyers and staff, implemented a mentoring program for young people, and created a Community Liaison Board that provides him quarterly feedback regarding their concerns about crime and public safety. He’s pressed ahead with his conviction integrity unit, and now has a plan to expand it into a “community integrity unit” that would also provide independent investigation of complaints against police — among the recommendations contained in the final report of the Obama administration’s President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The unit would gather and investigate complaints, provide the results of investigations to law enforcement administrators to determine whether discipline is warranted, consider criminal charges where appropriate, and release related information to the public.
Dupree described the expanded unit during the first meeting of the city’s new task force, where he’d been invited to speak. Judging by the expressions on the faces of task force members, who convened via Zoom, many appeared supportive of the move. But there was clearly some skepticism too. Isn’t it possible that this level of transparency might make police feel “too scrutinized,” one member asked, such that individuals might shy away from careers in law enforcement? Dupree disagreed. If reforms are “going to be meaningful,” he said, “we’ve got to be bold.”