ST. LOUIS (CN) – A white former police officer whose acquittal in the death of a black suspect set off weeks of protests argued Wednesday before the Eighth Circuit that St. Louis officials were not entitled to immunity from his defamation lawsuit.
The former officer, Jason Stockley, claimed that investigators intentionally disregarded and lied about evidence in charging him with murder in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith following a police chase after a suspected drug deal.
In February 2019, U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw dismissed the case, ruling that former St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce and former St. Louis police internal affairs investigator Kirk Deeken either had absolute or qualified immunity from being sued because of their positions. He also ruled that the lawsuit failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
Shaw’s ruling prompted Stockley’s appeal to the St. Louis-based Eighth Circuit.
U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond W. Gruender, a George W. Bush appointee, questioned Stockley’s attorney, Michael Gross, on whether Joyce’s actions as a prosecuting attorney entitled her to qualified immunity.
“She claimed to have conducted an investigation and she also claimed to have new evidence proving Mr. Stockley guilty of first-degree murder,” Gross said after the hearing. “She had no new evidence. Whether she conducted investigation of some sort, I don’t know, but she had no new evidence.”
Central to the appeal is what Stockley allegedly said during the high-speed chase that led to the fatal shooting of Smith. Prosecutors claim that Stockley could be heard on his in-car camera saying, “Going to kill this [expletive] don’t you know it,” moments before the shooting.
Gross argued that statement was taken out of context by Joyce and Deeken in getting a judge to issue an arrest warrant for Stockley. He pointed out that both witnesses and the in-car camera showed that Stockley waited 15 seconds without pointing his weapon at Smith and took a step back before firing the shots when he believed Smith was reaching for his gun.
“First of all, although the, I think the city councilor referred to the statement as, ‘I’m gonna kill this so and so, don’t you know,’ nobody ever has quoted that statement as ‘I’m gonna,’” Gross told reporters. “They’ve either quoted as ‘we’re gonna,’ which is significant given the alternative possible explanations, or what officer Deacon did was he just put an ellipsis where ‘we’re’ supposedly should be, and said ‘gonna kill this so and so’ so that it could be read as ‘I’m gonna.’ But nobody has ever said that he said ‘I’m gonna’ and if you listen to it carefully enough … if you try hard enough, you might hear ‘we’re gonna.’”
Gross offered alternative context to the statement. He told the court that it could have meant that Stockley was referring to the possibility that a high-speed chase in a residential neighborhood probably wouldn’t end well or that a man with a gun desperate to not get arrested would not fare well against two trained officers with bulletproof vests.
Attorney David Luce of Capes Sokol represented Joyce in the hearing. He argued that she was entitled to absolute immunity because nothing she said before the trial shocked the conscience.
“When you’re trying to get civil liability for an official’s violation of the Constitution, this is not a tort, this is not running a red light … it has to be something very, very serious that the official does,” Luce said after the hearing. “So the Supreme Court has said, in order to enable a civil plaintiff to get damages for a violation of the Constitution, the conduct has to shock the conscience. So it’s a high degree of culpability.”
Attorney Erin McGowan represented Deeken and St. Louis before the three-judge panel. She argued that Deeken didn’t materially distort any evident presented to the trial judge in order to get an arrest warrant.
U.S. Circuit Judge Bobby E. Shepherd, another George W. Bush appointee, questioned McGowan on whether a judge in good faith would issue an arrest warrant given all of the evidence surrounding the shooting.
“Certainly, given the statement made during the pursuit … the statement he made was that he was going to kill the suspect and the shooting supports probable cause,” McGowan told the court.
Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Morris S. Arnold, a George H. W. Bush appointee, joined Gruender and Shepherd on the panel, which took the case under advisement. There is no timetable for a decision.
Joyce’s office filed first-degree murder charges against Stockley in 2016, well after the 2011 incident. The case was prosecuted by Kim Gardner, who was not named as a party in the case. Gardner was elected after Joyce chose not to seek reelection the following year.
Stockley claimed the shooting was in self-defense, following a high-speed chase through residential neighborhoods. He testified he saw Smith reach for a gun in his car.
Prosecutors accused Stockley of planting the gun to back up his account.
After a city judge found Stockley not guilty, thousands took to St. Louis city streets in protests that led to hundreds of arrests and sometimes turned violent.
In his lawsuit, Stockley claimed that some evidence had been misrepresented and other evidence that would have benefitted his case was disregarded. The suit argued Joyce felt pressured to file charges after a rash of other officer-involved shootings of black suspects.
Stockley, in his suit, also accused Joyce of lying to a judge when she said there was new evidence that led to the charges being filed so long after Smith’s death and he also accused Deeken, the internal affairs investigator, of making false claims to grand jurors.