Protesters Pour Into St. Louis After Police Officer Acquitted of Murder

by | September 15, 2017

By Joel Currier

Former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley was found not guilty Friday of murdering a man while on duty.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson's highly anticipated verdict found the white former St. Louis police officer not guilty of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the December 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black drug suspect, after a high-speed pursuit and crash.

Activists, with support from some of the city's black clergy, had pledged disruptive protests ahead of Wilson's verdict.

Wilson addressed such statements in his order: "A judge shall not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism."

Immediately after the verdict was issued, protesters gathered downtown near Tucker Boulevard and Market Street. They congregated on a ramp to Interstate 64 off Clark Street, but were blocked by police from entering the highway. Protesters then headed to police headquarters.

As the protests grew, Wells Fargo, Stifel and Nestle Purina PetCare sent their thousands of employees home for the day.

Damone Smith, 52, an electrician headed to work, was among the motorists being rerouted from the protest area.

"I think the verdict is disgusting," said Smith, who is black. "I'm proud of these people protesting. If you look like me, then you feel like there is no other way to express yourself in the face of this kind of verdict. Time and time again, African-American men are killed by police and nobody is held accountable."

The judge explained his rationale for the verdict in a 30-page document filed about 8:30 a.m. Friday.

"No one promised a rose garden, and this surely is not one," he wrote of the case.

"This court, as the trier of fact, is simply not firmly convinced of defendant's guilt. Agonizingly, this court has pored over the evidence again and again ... This court, in conscience, cannot say that the state has proven every element of murder beyond a reasonable doubt or that the defendant did not act in self-defense."

Because the state did not prove Stockley did not act in self-defense, Wilson wrote that he could not address lesser charges of homicide or manslaughter.

In a statement, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said she was disappointed with Wilson's decision.

"While officer-involved shootings are very hard to return a guilty verdict, I am confident that we presented sufficient evidence at a trial to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jason Stockley was guilty of murder in the first degree," Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner told reporters. "But at the end of the day, it was the judge who served as the finder of fact. ... I must respect Judge Wilson's decision but I stand by the evidence we presented in court."

Earlier, in a statement, Gardner called for "an independent investigative body that works under the supervision of the circuit attorney that is solely dedicated to investigating the 25 cases that are under review by her office."

Mayor Lyda Krewson released a statement following the verdict saying, "I am appalled at what happened to Anthony Lamar Smith."

"I am sobered by this outcome. Frustration, anger, hurt, pain, hope and love all intermingled. I encourage St. Louisans to show each other compassion, to recognize that we all have different experiences and backgrounds and that we all come to this with real feelings and experiences," she wrote.

Krewson's comment drew a rebuke from Neil Bruntrager, Stockley's lawyer.

"How do you promote all those things by creating distrust in a system that clearly worked under these circumstances?" Bruntrager said. "It is irresponsible and a disservice to the community to make statements like that. It's an insult to Judge Wilson to make statements like that. And it falsely encourages the belief that an injustice was done here when in fact justice was done."

More than a month has passed since Stockley's bench trial ended, a case that has rekindled racial tensions not seen in St. Louis since the Ferguson uprising and police killing of VonDerrit Myers Jr. in the second half of 2014.

Ahead of the verdict -- and the threat of violent protests -- Gov. Eric Greitens took steps to activate the National Guard. Police officers in St. Louis and St. Louis County were put on 12-hour shifts, and several St. Louis schools called off classes for Friday. Barricades went up around downtown courthouses and the police station, and some downtown businesses boarded up their windows.

Stockley, 36, whose home is now Houston, was charged last year with first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the Dec. 20, 2011, shooting death of Smith, 24, at the end of a police chase at West Florissant and Acme avenues. The chase began when Stockley and his partner Brian Bianchi tried to arrest Smith for a suspected drug deal at a Church's Chicken at Thekla Avenue and Riverview Boulevard.

The decision was Wilson's alone because Stockley waived his right to a jury trial. Bianchi did not testify and has not been charged.

At the beginning of the chase, dash cam and surveillance footage from a restaurant shows Smith backing into Stockley and his partner's patrol car before speeding off. Wilson wrote, "Mr. Smith's Buick did not 'gently strike' the police vehicle."

"The police pursuit was in response to Smith's perilous conduct ... This pursuit was a stressful event for the occupants," Wilson wrote.

Prosecutors asserted that Stockley's partner, Bianchi, did not unholster his weapon during the fatal confrontation.

Wilson wrote, "At the time of the shooting, Bianchi was an inexperienced police officer. To draw compelling inferences from Bianchi's actions or inactions is not a reliable endeavor, and would amount to mere speculation."

Prosecutors said Stockley carried out the premeditated murder of Smith by shooting him five times at close range and then planting a .38-caliber revolver in Smith's Buick after police pulled Smith's body from the car. They asserted a "kill shot" was fired at close range after the first four shots were fired in close succession and struck Smith in the shoulder.

Defense attorneys said Stockley acted "reasonably" in self-defense in killing a drug suspect he believed was reaching for a hidden handgun.

Wilson quoted Dr. Gershom Norfleet, who performed the autopsy on Smith, in his ruling saying, in part, "The wound on the shoulder would not have caused Smith's death and to call it a 'kill shot' would be wrong.'"

"An obvious question the state made no attempt to answer was how Anthony Smith could have been shot in the left lower abdomen by a person standing outside the car if Smith was simply sitting in the driver's seat. Dr. Norfleet testified that the wounds in Smith's left flank could indicate that Smith was reaching for something to his right at the time the wounds occurred."

Wilson also noted that there was no evidence to support the state's contention that there was a gap in time between any of Stockley's shots.

A high-speed police chase preceded the shooting. During the pursuit, Stockley shouted commands to Bianchi, who drove their police SUV while chasing Smith through the Walnut Park neighborhood at speeds approaching 90 mph. Amid sirens, engine noise and squawking radio traffic, Stockley can be heard on an in-car camera video telling Bianchi "Gonna kill this (expletive), don't you know it."

Prosecutors argued the statement proved Stockley's "cool reflection" of his intent to kill Smith.

"The court also believes the dangerous, highly stressful and frenetic events during and immediately following the pursuit and shooting on Dec. 20, 2011, are the antithesis of a 'cool' anything, much less reflection," Wilson wrote.

During the trial, Stockley didn't deny saying it but also couldn't remember uttering it and therefore couldn't explain its meaning or context.

Wilson wrote, "The statement was not intelligible when the recording was played during the trial. However Stockley did not deny making the statement. He testified that he could not recall making the statement and he could not recall the context. The context is not clear from the recording; it cannot be determined what was said immediately before and immediately after the statement."

After the shooting, in-car camera footage shows Stockley sort through a duffel bag. Prosecutors alleged he was getting a gun to plant on Smith.

Wilson wrote, "Stockley does not have anything in either hand during the brief periods his hands are in view on this video, immediately before he exits. The video does not show defendant trying to stealthily recover a revolver and conceal it on his person."

With some 10 city and county police officers standing near Smith's crashed car, a bystander's cellphone video showed police pulling Smith's body from the car shortly before Stockley climbed inside. Stockley testified he found a loaded revolver shoved down between the center console and passenger seat. Lab tests of the gun revealed only Stockley's DNA. A plastic bag of heroin seized from the car had Smith's DNA but not Stockley's.

Wilson devoted nearly two pages of his 30-page ruling to discussion of the DNA found on the gun police said they found inside Smith's car, saying three scientists that testified at trial said their analysis did not conclude that Stockley's blood was found on the gun as the prosecution asserted.

Mary Ann Kwiatkowski, a supervisor at the biology section for the police department, "could not say there was blood on the gun, and that the absence of a person's DNA on a gun does not mean that person did not touch the gun. She reiterated that if DNA is not found on a gun, all she can say is that there is no DNA there, not that someone did or did not touch the gun," Wilson wrote.

He later continued, "The court observes, based on its nearly 30 years on the bench, that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly."

The case lay dormant for years after it was reviewed by state and federal prosecutors without criminal charges until then-Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce charged Stockley, citing new, unspecified evidence. Prosecutors still have never said what the new evidence was; the defense claimed in closing arguments Aug. 9 that there's been no new evidence in the case since 2012.

In 2013, the city paid Smith's fiancee and daughter, a $900,000 settlement stemming from a civil suit. Their lawyer, Albert Watkins, has called for the reopening of the lawsuit, claiming the city and state attorneys withheld copies of reports showing only Stockley's DNA on the revolver.

Watkins said outside the courthouse Friday morning:

"I find the ultimate disposition, the ruling, to be appalling, appallingly contrary to all of the evidence that was present, the evidence introduced into the record as an official entry into this case," he said. "Quite frankly, the family clearly is sorely disappointed. The community will be sorely disappointed, and all that we can hope for and pray for is that there is peace in the days to come rather than what we unfortunately fear may occur."

Former police Chief Dan Isom asked the FBI to investigate the shooting when it first happened. In 2013, U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan declined to prosecute based on the evidence the FBI gathered. He said he turned over the case to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division in 2013 and had not heard anything since.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said in May 2016 that the matter was still an open investigation.

A spokeswoman said in an email Thursday that the Department of Justice "does not, confirm or otherwise comment, on the existence or nonexistence of investigations."

Jeremy Kohler of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report

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