A St. Louis judge on Friday found former police officer Jason Stockley not guilty of first-degree murder in the 2011 shooting death of black motorist Anthony Lamar Smith.
“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 his ruling.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner said she was “disappointed” with the judge’s decision.
Stockley, then a St. Louis officer, shot dead Anthony Lamar Smith, 24, after a police chase in December 2011.
Stockley pleaded not guilty, saying he acted in self-defense and believed Smith was reaching for a gun in his car. Prosecutors accused the officer of planting a silver revolver to justify the shooting.
The defendant waived his right to a jury trial, meaning the ruling was left to Wilson.
Anticipation of the verdict has had St. Louis on edge and preparing for possible unrest in case Stockley was acquitted.
“What the country needs to know is, every single person in our country, we have a right to be mad,” said Al Watkins, an attorney for Smith’s fiancée, Christina Wilson, after the verdict. “We have a right to disagree. We have a right to express our opinion. We have a right to protest.”
“Exploit that right, don’t compromise it,” he said. “Stay peaceful.”
Barricades, peace pleas
Smith’s fiancée also has urged the community to avoid violence.
“However it goes, I ask for peace,” Christina Wilson said at a news conference earlier this week with Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.
Activists have said they were planning mass protests if Stockley weren’t convicted, according to CNN affiliate KMOV in St. Louis.
Authorities have set up barricades around the courthouse and intensified security in preparation for protests, according to KMOV.
Greitens said the Missouri National Guard has been activated to protect residents and property after the verdict.
“As governor, I am committed to protecting everyone’s constitutional right to protest peacefully while also protecting people’s lives, homes, and communities,” he said in a statement. “Taking the steps to put the Missouri National Guard on standby is a necessary precaution.”
In an order granting the defense request to waive the jury trial, the judge acknowledged it was not an easy case.
“Whatever the ultimate outcome, it will likely be melancholy,” Wilson wrote.
Dramatic footage — captured on the police vehicle dashcam, an internal vehicle camera and cell phone video of the shooting’s aftermath — played a key role in the trial that began August 1, according to KMOV.
In the opening statement, the prosecution said the officer fired “a kill shot” 6 inches from Smith.
Video from the police car camera allegedly shows Stockley taking off his gloves before rummaging through a bag in the police vehicle. The defense said he went to get a “quick clot” pack to help slow Smith’s bleeding from gunshot wounds. But prosecutors said that’s when Stockley retrieved the gun, according to KMOV.
Years before after Ferguson
Initially, state and federal authorities did not prosecute Stockley, but in Ferguson’s aftermath, then-St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce charged him with first-degree murder in May 2016, citing new evidence.
Stockley left the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in August 2013. Later that year, the St. Louis police board settled a wrongful death suit with Smith’s survivors for $900,000.
The case is notable because few police officers ever face trial in shooting deaths, and even fewer are convicted. The past year has seen officers acquitted or mistrials declared after jurors deadlocked in several high-profile trials, including at least four since May.
On December 20, 2011, Stockley and his partner, Brian Bianchi, tried to stop Smith after witnessing a suspected drug transaction in a restaurant parking lot, according to a police department report obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Bianchi told him Smith was reaching for a weapon, the report said. Stockley exited the police SUV carrying his department-issued handgun along with his personal AK-47 pistol. It was against department policy to carry the latter.
Smith tried to speed away, knocking Stockley sideways, and the officer fired several shots at the vehicle, saying he feared for his life and the safety of others, the report said.
Stockley and Bianchi pursued Smith and at some point, the police vehicle crashed into Smith’s Buick, the report said.
With Bianchi at the wheel, the officers chased Smith at speeds of more than 80 mph before the crash, according to the criminal complaint.
Smith was alive after the crash when the officers approached his car with their weapons drawn. In the internal report, Stockley said he ordered Smith to show his hands, and believed the suspect was reaching for a handgun between the center console and the passenger seat.
After he fired, striking Smith in the chest, Stockley returned to the police SUV to retrieve materials to render first aid, but when he came back it was too late.
Stockley entered Smith’s car “to locate the weapon and render it safe,” and removed the ammunition from the silver revolver, he said in the report.
Forensic analysis revealed that Stockley’s was the only DNA present on the gun he said belonged to Smith, the criminal complaint said.
Stockley’s partner wasn’t charged.