Photo via Harris County Texas Sheriff's Office/Danny Wicentowski
Charged with murder in 2013, ex-St. Louis Cop Jason Stockley was involved in a 2011 street pursuit that ended in him killing a suspect.
Ex-St. Louis cop Jason Stockley has been found not guilty in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
The Circuit Attorney's office announced the decision this morning in a press release, saying that Judge Timothy Wilson had reached his decision after weighing evidence from a contentious bench trial that spanned more than four days earlier last month in St. Louis Circuit Court.
See also: Protest Follow Stockley Acquittal in Downtown St. Louis
“Of course, I’m disappointed with the court’s decision,” Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner said in the release. “As the Circuit Attorney for the City of St. Louis, I remain committed to holding people accountable for violating the law, regardless of their race, gender, occupation, or station in life.
“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 Jason Stockley intended to kill Mr. Smith. However, in this case it was the judge’s duty to evaluate the evidence and deliver his findings. That’s how our system works. I’m very proud of my team’s effort and commitment to the pursuit of justice on behalf of Mr. Smith’s family and the people of St. Louis.”
The Stockley case, Gardner added, should spur changes in the way similar cases are initially investigated. She is calling for the creation of an "independent investigative body" to evaluate 25 open cases of police use-of-force that resulted in injury or death. "Police cannot continue to investigate themselves," she said.
Wilson issued a 30-page ruling this morning outlining his thinking in the case. In essence, he said, the prosecutors did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley was not acting in self-defense.
"Missouri law requires that the trier of fact be 'firmly convinced' of the defendant's guilt in order to convict," Wilson wrote. "...The court, as the trier of fact, is simply not convinced of defendant's guilt."
Wilson's decision notes the high tension surrounding the verdict. "Agonizingly, this court has poured over the evidence again and again," he wrote. "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."
See also: In Stockley Verdict, Judge Wilson Found Reasonable Doubt
The city has been on high alert in anticipation of the verdict. The trial wrapped five weeks ago. Adding to the tension: Protesters called for "mass disruption" if the former police officer is acquitted. Yesterday, Governor Eric Greitens mobilized the National Guard
PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
Anthony Shahid and other activists react to the verdict.
After the verdict was issued, activist Anthony Shahid — whose advocacy kept the case in front of public officials for years after Smith's death — joined a small group in front of the courthouse at Tucker and Market.
While the street was open to traffic, the activists walked through it freely, at times even linking arms in the roadway.
"This is what white privilege looks like in America," Shahid told the RFT
. "They're killing us like dogs and niggers."
Attorney Albert Watkins, who is representing the Smith family, was also outside the courthouse. He said he found the verdict "appallingly contrary to the evidence that was presented." Watkins added, "Quite frankly, the family is sorely disappointed." He also stressed that the family is hoping for peace.
PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
Attorney Albert Watkins represents Smith's family.
Stockley, who claimed he shot Smith in self-defense, was charged with first-degree murder in May 2016
, nearly five years after he chased and killed the 24-year-old in north city. The former patrolman testified during the trial that Smith was armed with a handgun.
The confrontation began on December 20, 2011. Stockley and his partner, Officer Brian Bianchi, claimed they saw Smith make a drug deal in the parking lot of a Church's Chicken near Thekla Avenue and Riverview Boulevard and went to investigate.
Stockley popped out of the police SUV, heavily armed with his personally owned AK-47 Draco and his service weapon, a 9mm Beretta handgun. Smith started to take off, cranking the wheel of the silver Buick in a lurching, multi-point turn. He backed into the the SUV and nearly clipped Stockley before speeding out of the parking lot.
Stockley switched the AK-47 — the Draco is a pistol version of the famed assault rifle — to his left hand, pulled his Beretta and fired seven rounds at the fleeing Buick before he rejoined Bianchi in the SUV to give chase. Superiors had previously told the West Point grad and Army vet not to carry the Draco. He testified in court he felt he needed the extra firepower but chose the smaller gun in the parking lot because the Draco was so powerful and hard to control that he worried he'd accidentally blast through walls of nearby buildings and wound bystanders.
With Bianchi behind the wheel, the officers chased Smith at high speeds through north city neighborhoods. Prosecutors would later focus on a dashboard camera video that recorded Stockley saying, "Going to kill this motherfucker, don't you know it." His attorney, Neil Bruntrager, challenged the quotation, claiming there was too much static to hear exactly what was said. Stockley, however, testified he had listened to the recording and conceded he said the line or something very close to it. He said he didn't remember saying it but was sure he didn't mean it literally.
The patrol officers eventually cornered Smith about three miles from the start of the pursuit. On Stockley's order, Bianchi rammed the Buick, triggering the sedan's airbags. Stockley, still armed with the Draco and his Beretta, jumped out of the SUV, moved to the driver's side window and pumped five rounds through the window. A forensics expert testified
during the trial that what prosecutors described as a "kill shot" was fired from within six inches.
The scene was filmed both by the dashboard camera and a witness with a cell phone, but the deflating airbags made it impossible to see what exactly happened inside the Buick. Assistant Circuit Attorneys Robert Steele and Aaron Levinson have accused Stockley of planting a handgun in the Buick after killing Smith to make a murder look like self defense.
The videos show the patrolman going back and forth between the Buick and the SUV, climbing into the back seat of the cruiser at one point. Prosecutors say that's when he picked up a .38-caliber Taurus to drop in the car. Bruntrager argues that Stockley was instead looking for clot pack in hopes of saving Smith's life. He says no one planted a gun.
Stockley claims he first saw Smith with the Taurus in the church's parking lot and was cautious when he approached the driver's side window at the end of the chase. He testified that he only fired after seeing that Smith was about to shoot him.
An analysis of the Taurus showed only Stockley's DNA on the handgun, but even that was inconclusive. Stockley was wearing gloves throughout most of the incident but took them off to search the Buick, leaving open the possibility that he transferred DNA to the gun when he retrieved it from the car.
Stockley had been free throughout the trial. He was arrested in May 2016 at his home in Houston, Texas, where he moved after leaving the department. He was extradited to St. Louis, where the police union posted $100,000 of his $1 million bail.
See also: In Stockley Verdict, Judge Found Reasonable Doubt
Editor's note: This story was updated soon after publication to include reaction. We'll continue to update the story in real time as the day continues.
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