ST. LOUIS — 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 a white former St. Louis police officer not guilty of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the December 2011 shooting death of 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 St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson’s verdict.
— Christian P. Bryant (@BryantCP) September 15, 2017
Protestor maced near Tucker and Clark. pic.twitter.com/eKWbuXn5RH
— Kevin Killeen (@KMOXKilleen) September 15, 2017
Wilson addressed such statements in his order: “A judge shall not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism.”
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.
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 Anthony Lamar 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 decison was Wilson’s alone because Stockley waived his right to a jury trial.
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 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 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.'”
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. 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, 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.
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, city paid Smith’s survivors a $900,000 settlement stemming from a civil suit. Their lawyer 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.
Al Watkins, lawyer for Smith’s fiancée and daughter, 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.”
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