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Disgusted by city's top prosecutor, a police officer refuses to testify

Why would a police officer refuse to testify in murder cases he investigated — especially if he believes the defendants are guilty?

That's what retired St. Louis homicide detective Roger Murphey is doing, even though he knows it means criminals may be walking free. He's an extreme example of resistance to progressive prosecutors in the nationwide debate over how to deal with crime.

Murphey is a white Republican conservative cop who thinks crimes should have consequences and police officers shouldn't act like social workers. He opposes the policies of the former top prosecutor in St. Louis, Kim Gardner, a Black Democratic liberal politician who thinks poverty is the cause of most crimes and the criminal justice system needs major reform.

Gardner pushed to eliminate cash bail, end mass incarceration, promote rehabilitation over punishment, and stop prosecuting lower-level crimes like shoplifting. Murphey says her policies made St. Louis a more dangerous city.

Their paths crossed when Gardner put Murphey on a list of police officers with alleged credibility problems; controversial Facebook posts landed him there. Gardner's office considered them racist. Murphey says they were not, instead calling them political statements protected by free speech.

Despite having put Murphey on its so-called exclusion list, Gardner's office asked him to testify at murder trials in which he'd been the lead detective. Murphey says it's hypocritical to include him on that list yet consider him trustworthy enough to sit on a witness stand, so he's refusing to testify. Some of those cases have ended in acquittals and plea deals — weakened, according to some St. Louis prosecutors, by Murphey's absence.

Detective Murphey says he's standing up for what he believes in. His critics say he's allowing murderers to evade accountability and is motivated by a desire for retribution, not altruism.

Frustrated and disillusioned, Murphey eventually took early retirement. Gardner, after clashing repeatedly with police and facing intense public criticism over her handling of the prosecutor's office, resigned under pressure. But the legacy of the Murphey-Gardner conflict continues: Murphey is also refusing to testify in another trial that's expected to start soon.

Listen to NPR's story to learn more.

This story is a collaboration between NPR and ProPublica, whose digital version of the story is here.

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Sacha Pfeiffer
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.