ST. LOUIS — A white former police officer was acquitted Friday in the 2011 death of a black man who was fatally shot following a high-speed chase, with the judge declaring that he would not be swayed by “partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism.”
The acquittal of Jason Stockley in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith had stirred concerns about possible civil unrest for weeks. Several hundred protesters were marching in the streets of downtown St. Louis within hours of the verdict.
Stockley was charged with first-degree murder but insisted he saw Smith holding a gun and felt he was in imminent danger. Prosecutors said the officer planted a gun in Smith’s car after the shooting. The officer asked the case to be decided by a judge instead of a jury.
“This court, in conscience, cannot say that the State has proven every element of murder beyond a reasonable doubt or that the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense,” St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson wrote in the decision .
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said she was disappointed.
“While officer-involved shooting cases are extremely difficult to prevail in court, I believe we offered sufficient evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt” that Stockley intended to kill Smith, Gardner said in a written statement.
Assistant Circuit Attorney Robert Steele emphasized during the trial last month that police dashcam video of the chase captured Stockley saying he was “going to kill this (expletive), don’t you know it.”
Less than a minute later, the officer shot Smith five times. Stockley’s lawyer dismissed the comment as “human emotions” uttered during a dangerous police pursuit. The judge wrote that the statement “can be ambiguous depending on the context.”
Prosecutors objected to the officer’s request for a bench trial.
The Constitution guarantees that people accused of crimes have a right to have their cases heard “by an impartial jury.” But defendants can also opt to have the verdict rendered by a judge.
Stockley, 36, could have been sentenced to up to life in prison without parole. He left the St. Louis police force in 2013 and moved to Houston.
“As an officer of the court, I must respect Judge Wilson’s decision but I stand by the evidence we presented in court. Please be assured I remain committed to doing whatever’s necessary to hold individuals accountable for violating the laws of Missouri regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, occupation or station in life,” said Kim Gardner.
It is unusual for officers to be charged with killing suspects while on duty. Few officers have been convicted in such deaths.
Ahead of the verdict, activists in St. Louis threatened civil disobedience if Stockley were acquitted, including possible efforts to shut down highways. Barricades went up on Aug. 28 around police headquarters, the courthouse where the trial was held and other potential protest sites.
Fears of unrest prompted several large downtown businesses to send thousands of employees home. Some schools closed early and postponed events scheduled for Friday.
The St. Louis area has a history of unrest in similar cases, including after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. Protests, some of them violent, erupted after the unarmed black 18-year-old was killed by a white police officer. The officer was not charged but later resigned.
In Smith’s case, the encounter began when Stockley and his partner tried to corner Smith in a fast-food restaurant parking lot after seeing what appeared to be a drug deal. Stockley testified that he saw what he believed was a gun, and his partner yelled “gun!” as Smith backed into the police SUV twice to get away.
Stockley’s attorney, Neil Bruntrager, argued that Smith, a 24-year-old parole violator with previous convictions for gun and drug crimes, tried to run over the two officers. Stockley fired seven shots as Smith sped away. A chase ensued.
At the end of the chase, Stockley opened fire only when Smith, still in his car, refused commands to put up his hands and reached along the seat “in the area where the gun was,” Bruntrager said. Stockley said he climbed into Smith’s car and found a revolver between the center console and passenger seat.
But prosecutors questioned why Stockley dug into a bag in the back seat of the police SUV before returning to Smith’s car.
The gun found in Smith’s car did not have his DNA on it, but it did have Stockley’s.
“The gun was a plant,” Steele said.
The case was among several in recent years in which a white officer killed a black suspect. Officers were acquitted in recent police shooting trials in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. A case in Ohio twice ended with hung juries, and prosecutors have decided not to seek a third trial.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson says she hopes city residents will come together despite their differences over the acquittal and says she’s praying for the loved ones of Anthony Lamar Smith. She also offers prayers for police, the judge who issued the verdict and “citizens who find no comfort, or justice.”
“I understand and know the deep mistrust the law enforcement and criminal justice system as a whole in our communities and especially those communities of color in our city. In too many of these communities, there is a feeling of hopelessness and that the system is rigged against them, feelings that there is no one in the system to ensure fairness for them and their families,” said Kim Gardner. “Let me be clear. I was elected too and I will continue to fight for you. There is nothing to stop me from providing every person with a fair and impartial process. The resisters to change will not stop me. The critics will not stop me. And most certainly, this verdict will not stop me.”
Missouri Governor Eric Greitens (R) released the following statement:
“We know this verdict causes pain for many people. We have been in touch with city and county officials, and the State of Missouri will continue to assist them. I’m committed to protecting everyone’s constitutional right to protest peacefully, while also protecting people’s lives, homes, and communities. For anyone who protests, please do so peacefully.”
U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D) also released a statement on the acquittal of Stockley:
“Some Missourians are sure to be pained by today’s decision, and others will agree with the ruling, but the fact is that none of us can let it detract from the goals that we all should share—safer streets, where police have the trust of the communities they serve, and a system of justice that’s fair to all of our citizens. The events in Ferguson shook our region to its core and forced us to face some tough realities. But since then, our law enforcement and the families and businesses they serve have begun talking and hearing each other. We can’t let today’s decision send us back to our respective corners. I know if we continue to have hard conversations in a candid, peaceful, and constructive way, we can make the kind of progress everyone in our state craves and deserves.”
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