Inexperienced judge presides over polarized courthouse in Lincoln … –

LINCOLN COUNTY • This county’s only circuit judge took office in 2013 without ever handling a jury trial. By the end of that year, she would make mistakes in a murder case that later caused the reversal of Russell Faria’s conviction and an enduring controversy.

Now, after unrelated criticism, the Missouri Supreme Court is deciding whether to suspend Presiding Judge Chris Kunza Mennemeyer for six months.

In disciplinary hearings, she and others opened up about problems and complaints.

The result was a rare look at the inner workings of a courthouse, and the challenges a new judge faces. It also featured rare public criticism of a sitting judge that portrayed her as stubborn, condescending and less than credible.

The Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline recently recommended six months of unpaid suspension after finding that she intentionally kept defendants behind bars as a power play against public defenders.

The commission also said that Mennemeyer filed an unfounded disciplinary complaint against the head public defender in Lincoln County in retaliation for one his boss had filed against her.

The judge has denied both claims. Her lawyer, Paul D’Agrosa, declined to comment for this article, saying, “I don’t think it would be appropriate. This matter is not settled yet.”

Mennemeyer joined the bench with almost no trial experience, obtained no training on how to be a judge and had no mentor after becoming one, according to the hearing transcript.

One experienced Lincoln County lawyer, called to testify on Mennemeyer’s behalf, spoke of a “toxic” environment, where court staff, the judge, prosecutors and defense lawyers “don’t play well together.”

The lawyer said both he and the judge blamed resentment over her unexpected election victory in 2012.

Even her own courthouse was no sanctuary, as Mennemeyer testified that she avoids the shared courthouse kitchen to escape gossip about her and relatives.

“It just won’t stop,” she said.

Little trial experience

The judge, who is in her mid-40s, is a Lincoln County native.

Her campaign biography said she was co-valedictorian of Troy Buchanan High School, with a bachelor’s degree in math and science education in 1993 and a law degree in 1997, both from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She promised to “bring common sense to our court system.”

Mennemeyer is married to a local pastor, and has children from a prior marriage.

Her first job out of law school was in Clayton, reviewing leases for a real estate law firm. Her second, also in Clayton, was similar.

In 2001, the then-prosecuting attorney in Lincoln County asked her to join the office.

She told the commission that she spent nine months as “the assistant to the assistant” prosecutor, handling traffic and juvenile cases, watching interviews of abused children and revoking licenses in DWI cases.

From there, she moved into private practice. Over a decade, she focused on estate planning, landlord-tenant matters and what she termed “criminal light” — “traffic tickets, mostly things where I figured there would be a (plea) recommendation (from prosecutors), and it wouldn’t be a court hearing type case. I did do a few DWIs if they were first offenses,” she told the commission.

“I had never done a jury trial,” she said, although she said she did handle one or two pleas in felony cases.

She was once appointed a “second string municipal judge,” she testified, “but I never served.”

In the 2012 Republican primary, she ran for circuit judge against a public defender, and won. In the general election, she faced Associate Circuit Judge Ben Burkemper, who had been unopposed in the Democratic primary.

‘All the right stuff’

Mennemeyer told the commission that Burkemper had “all the right stuff.” He was part of a politically connected family of lawyers who knew a lot of people. He also was a member of the “right party,” she claimed, in a county “where you could have hung it up” if you ran as a Republican before things changed around 2010.

“I’m nobody,” she said. “I wasn’t supposed to win. It was that simple.”

She called the general election “very contentious,” “very nasty” and “very personal” but did not elaborate.

Burkemper told a reporter in an interview, “I don’t know what she would be referring to. I thought it was a very clean election.”

Mennemeyer won by just 231 votes out of 29,371 cast, or less than 1 percent.

As the only circuit judge in the 45th Judicial Circuit, which covers Lincoln and Pike counties, Mennemeyer also is presiding judge, with additional administrative duties. There are three associate judges.

Once elected, Mennemeyer said, she did not lack “confidence as far as being able to do the job because … when I started private practice, I started from nothing. And, really, to me, it isn’t that anybody’s expected to know everything. You just have to know how to find the answer. You have to be able to work hard.”

She then added a caveat. “Criminally speaking, I don’t think I knew enough to know what I didn’t know.”

Her first trial, a civil case in her second week, left her feeling “better about going forward.”

“I did a lot of reading. I tried to look at the issues ahead of time, ramp up, and after I did that, I think I felt a little more confident like, wow, that was really hard,” she said.

Burkemper said that becoming a judge is a tough challenge for anyone. Becoming presiding judge, he said, “is a much larger responsibility.”

Not supposed to win

It’s not clear when things started to go wrong for Mennemeyer, but both she and William Cheeseman, a longtime local lawyer who was called by her lawyer to testify at the hearing, blamed the election.

From “Day One” she did not have a lot of local support, Cheeseman said, “because she wasn’t supposed to be the one that won.”

Mennemeyer said she faced gossip that she “slept with every man, woman and child in the county to win the election.” It didn’t end with her. She said that relatives — including her children — were verbally attacked, too.

She has been in an ongoing dispute with county commissioners who do not want to pay for her hiring of a juvenile court lawyer.

And brothers of a woman who died in 2014 made claims in a probate case that while in private practice, Mennemeyer improperly gained control of their sister’s assets. Mennemeyer has denied the accusation.

Mennemeyer also faced a dispute with the public defender’s office that led to the disciplinary hearing.

She believed the office did not have the authority to enter certain cases without a judge’s order. Local and state leaders of the public defender’s office disagreed.

In early 2014, Lincoln County Circuit Clerk Grace Sinclair approached an associate judge and told him that Mennemeyer was delaying some criminal cases by up to 60 days to block the appointment of public defenders.

Mennemeyer was upset that public defenders were often filing motions to disqualify her from hearing their cases, according to commission findings, and wanted to foil them. By delaying cases, she could cause them to miss the deadline to seek a new judge.

The commission eventually concluded that Mennemeyer intentionally delayed the cases of eight people from 60 to 79 days each because of the dispute, meaning the defendants spent extra time in jail.

Mennemeyer told the commission that Sinclair only made that claim because she is a Democrat and a friend of Burkemper.

Sinclair, in a telephone interview, said, “It had nothing to do with that.”

“I was just stating the facts and being honest,” she said. Sinclair said she always had good working relationships with other judges but characterized her relationship with Mennemeyer as “not as good.”

Election effect disputed

Burkemper, in a telephone interview, said the usual adversarial system of criminal law “was more adversarial than it needed to be” in Lincoln County, and he blamed a lack of communication.

Burkemper stepped down as associate judge in December 2013 to work for the Missouri attorney general’s office and is now administrator of the St. Louis County Family Court.

Cheeseman, the lawyer who testified for Mennemeyer, also blamed intra-office relations.

The “atmosphere of the public defender, the prosecutor’s office, the clerk’s office, the court itself, the judges, it just seems like it is not meshed where we’re all doing the same thing in the same direction at the same time,” he said.

“And I don’t know where it started,” he added. “I don’t know how to fix it. Don’t know if it can be fixed.”

Cheeseman said that in Mennemeyer’s courtroom, Sinclair sits just feet away but the two do not interact. “Everybody can see that,” he said.

Lincoln County Prosecuting Attorney Leah Askey said, “I have no issues with anyone I work with.” She declined further comment further on the case.

A strong rebuke

Mennemeyer faced strong criticism from the disciplinary commission, which includes judges, lawyers and others.

During Mennemeyer’s testimony, Judge Nancy Steffen Rahmeyer, of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, called her stubborn and said she had a “very condescending attitude toward the Public Defender’s Office, toward anyone who disagrees with you.”

Rahmeyer also said it appeared as if Mennemeyer “digs in” when confronted.

After Mennemeyer said during the hearings that she was unclear about what a particular statute allowed public defenders to do, Rahmeyer responded: “Did you ask anyone else in the judiciary whether your interpretation of (Chapter) 600 made sense?”

Rahmeyer added, “… what will it take to get you so that you read the statute or talk to some judges or get some input that guides you better?”

Jim Smith, the commission’s counsel, recommended that Mennemeyer get a mentor, Rahmayer noted, adding, “I don’t know if you will listen.”

Rahmeyer and the commission chairman, Skip Walther, appeared skeptical when Mennemeyer said that she had asked some judges about the issue.

Barely mentioned in the hearing was the trial of Faria in the murder of his wife near Troy, Mo. He was convicted by a jury and spent 41 months in prison before an appellate court ruled that Mennemeyer deprived him of a fair trial by refusing to allow evidence against an alternate suspect. Faria was acquitted by a visiting judge in a retrial.

That alternate suspect, Pamela Hupp, is now charged in St. Charles County with a different murder that officials say appeared to be calculated to throw suspicion on Faria.

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