Harris County Sheriff's Office
Former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley's murder charge is long overdue, an attorney says.
An ex-St. Louis cop charged on Monday with first-degree murder for killing a black man in 2011 could have been prosecuted years ago.
That's the conclusion of Albert Watkins, the Clayton lawyer who won a record-breaking civil settlement for the dead man’s daughter.
Watkins reviewed what he says was a large amount of evidence, including video and audio recordings from the fatal confrontation, back in 2012 when he was suing the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners over the killing of Anthony Lamar Smith.
Officer Jason Stockley was caught on a police SUV’s dashcam recording saying “Going to kill this mother, don’t you know it,” as he and Officer Brian Bianchi chased 24-year-old Smith through north St. Louis at speeds topping 80 miles per hour.
When Smith slowed to a stop in the Walnut Park neighborhood, Stockley was heard telling Bianchi to “hit him right now,” authorities say. Bianchi then drove the SUV into the rental car Smith was driving. Stockley hopped out of the SUV, approached the driver’s side of the car and fired five bullets from his police-issued handgun into Smith, according to the allegations.
“Given the video evidence and given the audio evidence alone, I was stunned that charges were not brought” shortly after the killing, Watkins tells the Riverfront Times
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce cited Stockley’s statements from those same recordings on Monday in a news release announcing the murder charge against the ex-cop. Joyce also pointed to a damning DNA analysis of a gun recovered from Smith’s car. The tests determined the only DNA on the weapon came from Stockley.
Watkins says the result of the DNA test is one piece of evidence the Attorney General’s Office did not give him during the civil suit — but should have. (The police department was under state control at the time, and the Attorney General’s Office was responsible for defending the police commissioners as a result.)
“The DNA would have debunked the story of the officer,” Watkins says. “And it would have debunked the story of the officer in a most horrendous way, because it would have not only demonstrated that this man (Smith) was unarmed and supported the proposition that he was helpless, but it would have also demonstrated categorically that this officer was acting with malice and being deceitful and lying within the context of a federal and state criminal investigation.”
The police board eventually agreed to pay Smith’s one-year-old daughter, Autumn Smith, what Watkins says was the largest amount of money ever paid by the city for a federal civil rights claim of excessive use of force. But Watkins believes the settlement could have been even more had he known that DNA evidence supported the theory that Stockley planted a gun on Smith after killing him.
(A judge’s order forbids Watkins from discussing the dollar amount of the settlement. A spokeswoman for the Attorney General did not respond to the RFT’s
request for comment.)
The case was first investigated by city homicide detectives, who initially ruled the shooting a justifiable homicide, prosecutors say. Federal investigators also looked at the case, and a police Internal Affairs unit continued to review it as well. The Circuit Attorney’s Office was invited to “informally” review the case in 2012, according to Joyce.
“Prosecutors at the time believed more evidence was needed to pursue charges,” the Circuit Attorney’s release said.
U.S. Attorney for Missouri’s Eastern District Richard Callahan says federal prosecutors came to the same conclusion in 2012. Given the evidence available at the time, he says that was the right call.
“Certainly in 2012 it was,” he says. “Charging decisions are never a zero sum game, and charging decisions can change if there’s new evidence.”
According to Joyce, that's what happened two months ago, when the police Internal Affairs contacted her office with new evidence developed by city investigators and the FBI.
She told the RFT
the evidence mentioned in court filings that were made public on Monday doesn’t cover everything prosecutors have.
“While we understand there is a lot of public interest, we must focus our efforts on pursuing this case to the fullest extent of the law in the courts and not in the media,” Joyce said in an email. “We will not risk tainting the jury pool or having any piece of evidence thrown out by the court because we discussed it in the media.”
Watkins lauded the prosecutor for bringing the charges, and police for continuing to pursue the case.
“But do not be mistaken,” Watkins says, “there was sufficient evidence from the get-go to completely justify and support through conviction the prosecution of Officer Stockley for murder. The fact that it has occurred five years later is just further evidence that while the wheels of justice go round and round, sometimes they creak and move really slowly.”
That sounds like the words of an armchair quarterback to Callahan — “I’m not aware of any cases he’s ever prosecuted,” he says of Watkins — but he confirms the defense attorney’s theory that investigators had the DNA evidence “very early” in the high-profile probe.
“The shooting happened in December 2011, so early in 2012, very early in 2012,” says Callahan, noting his office had no part in the civil suit.
Stockley’s arrest is a serious blow for a decorated Army veteran. He graduated from the prestigious West Point military academy, served in Iraq and was awarded the Bronze Star. He resigned from the police force in 2013 shortly after Chief Sam Dotson took over the department.
"Stockley's actions were in no way representative of the dedicated service of the men and women who serve on this department," Dotson said in a statement.
The disgraced former cop was living in Houston, Texas when he was arrested on Monday by St. Louis police and U.S. Marshals. He was held without bail in a jail in Harris County, Texas.
If he’s looking for legal advice, Watkins offered some for free:
“My suggestion to him is that the better part of the very same valor that earned him a Bronze Star will be to pull his head out of his ass and cop a plea.”
Update 12:10 p.m.: A spokeswoman for the Attorney General has this to say about the DNA evidence: "Although the attorney who handled the civil settlement in 2013 is no longer with our office, to our office's knowledge, no DNA evidence was available."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story suggested that Stockley was carrying an AK-47 assault rifle when he approached Smith's car. While he did brandish the weapon, it was at the start of the car chase, not its conclusion. We regret the error.
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