ST. LOUIS (CN) – A St. Louis judge issued a not-guilty verdict Friday to the white former police officer who killed a black motorist six years ago, leading hundreds of protesters to take to the streets downtown.
Jason Stockley, 36, was charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action for the December 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, an African-American, following a police chase after a suspected drug deal.
Stockley waived his right to a jury trial, so the decision rested solely with St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Timothy Wilson. The trial ended Aug. 9 and the city, still recovering from unrest in the suburb of Ferguson three years ago, had been on edge waiting for the decision and the aftermath since.
Judge Wilson wrote in Friday’s 30-page ruling, “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 defendant did not act in self-defense.”
More than 300 demonstrators assembled downtown Friday after the verdict was handed down. They gathered near the Carnahan Courthouse and began marching in the streets, chanting, “No justice, no peace.”
Protesters also chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
(Video by Joe Harris/CNS.)
Police have blocked off some streets and prevented some protesters from getting on an interstate ramp. At least one demonstrator was arrested.
One African-American woman marching in protest of the verdict told Courthouse News, “I’m truly upset about what happened today. I’m not surprised but upset that it’s 2017 and we need to fight for equal rights…that’s my problem.”
Another protester exclaimed, “I hope that people get off their ass and stand up for justice!”
St. Louis interim police chief Lawrence O’Toole urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully in a statement released after the verdict was announced.
O’Toole said he understands emotions are running high but the judge’s decision should be respected, and that protecting citizens is his department’s top priority.
Protesters marched to police headquarters Friday afternoon and demanded O’Toole’s resignation.
One African-American man said in an interview with Courthouse News that he predicts protests will turn violent Friday night.
“It’s going to get real violent. We don’t ever get heard,” he said.
Activists have vowed a Ferguson-like, drawn out protest. Though specific plans weren’t made public, the activists said they would concentrate on peacefully disrupting business. Some targets could include protests at St. Louis Cardinals baseball games and Lambert International Airport.
Barricades were placed around the civil and criminal courthouses as well as the police department to prepare for protests. Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens activated the National Guard on Thursday in anticipation of the ruling and to assist local law enforcement.
Gov. Greitens acknowledged on Friday morning that the verdict causes pain for many people but asked those who choose to protest the ruling to do so peacefully.
According to a probable cause statement attached to the first-degree murder charge, Stockley shot into Smith’s car in north St. Louis on Dec. 20, 2011, then pursued him at more than 80 miles per hour.
“During the pursuit, the defendant is heard saying ‘going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it,'” according to the statement.
Smith was shot five times – in the neck, upper chest and forearm and twice in his left flank.
Prosecutors claimed that Stockley had fired his “kill shot” at Smith from just 6 inches away and then planted a revolver in Smith’s car to justify the shooting. Smith had previously been convicted of gun and drug crimes.
Stockley’s DNA, not Smith’s was found on the revolver found in Smith car, according to police reports. The DNA was under a screw on the gun’s handle.
Stockley told investigators he had unloaded the revolver as a safety precaution, and his attorneys argued that action could have transferred his DNA to the gun.
During the trial, prosecutors grilled law enforcement witnesses on why Stockley was allowed to return to his police SUV and search Smith’s silver Buick without wearing gloves and why the other responding officers did not give Smith first aid at the scene.
Stockley’s lawyer argued that his client acted reasonably at the end of a “near-death” police chase to arrest a drug suspect who endangered the officers’ lives as well as innocent bystanders on St. Louis streets. Police witnesses testified that officers routinely handle and unload weapons they encounter, in an attempt to explain how Stockley’s DNA was on the gun.