Protests erupt in St. Louis after police officer found not guilty in murder trial
More than a dozen people were arrested Friday as crowds of demonstrators in the St. Louis region marched into the night following the acquittal of a white former police officer who was charged with murder last year for fatally shooting a black driver after a car chase and then accused by prosecutors of planting a gun on the victim.
Prosecutors charged Jason Stockley, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officer, with murder for killing Anthony Lamar Smith in December 2011. According to the probable cause statement, Stockley was caught saying he was “going to kill this m*********er, don’t you know it” and was heard telling another officer to drive into Smith’s slowing car.
The court document, submitted by the St. Louis circuit attorney, said Stockley then approached Smith’s window and fired five times into the car, hitting Smith “with each shot” and killing him. In addition, prosecutors say, there was a gun found in Smith’s car, but it was later determined to only have DNA from Stockley.
Judge Timothy Wilson, the circuit judge who heard the case in a bench trial, acquitted Stockley on the murder charge as well as a charge of armed criminal action in a 30-page order released Friday morning.
Wilson wrote that he was “simply not firmly convinced” of Stockley’s guilt, saying that “agonizingly,” he went over the case’s evidence repeatedly. Ultimately, Wilson said, he was not convinced that the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley “did not act in self-defense,” as the former officer had said.
Local and state officials said they were prepared for potential unrest to follow the acquittal, and some schools were shuttered around the St. Louis area and events set for the region were postponed as the verdict loomed.
St. Louis police said Friday evening that 13 people had been arrested and that four officers suffered injuries in the protests, though none went to the hospital.
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, R, on Thursday put the state’s National Guard on standby in advance of the verdict and potential protests.
“We know this verdict causes pain for many people,” Greitens said in a statement Friday. “We have been in touch with city and county officials, and the state of Missouri will continue to assist them. I’m committed to protecting everyone’s constitutional right to protest peacefully, while also protecting people’s lives, homes, and communities. For anyone who protests, please do so peacefully.”
Greitens had said putting the National Guard on standby was “a necessary precaution.” Before the verdict was announced, Greitens stood with Christina Wilson, Smith’s fiancee, to deliver a joint message asking people to protest peacefully.
“If you feel like you want to speak out, speak how you feel,” Wilson said at the news briefing. “And whatever comes to you, just do it in a peaceful way.”
Greitens, speaking after Wilson, said he knew people could feel pain after the verdict, but asked them not to “turn that pain into violence.”
“One life has been lost in this case, and we don’t need more bloodshed,” he said.
Neil Bruntrager, an attorney for Stockley, said the former officer felt “obvious relief” at the result Friday.
In a telephone interview, Bruntrager said the judge’s detailed opinion explaining the verdict was his “best effort in that regard to make sure people understand why he did what he did.”
“That to me is invaluable,” Bruntrager continued. “Because if you read this, if you truly read this, you can’t come away with any other conclusion other than what he concluded.”
The potential for unrest has gripped the St. Louis region, which was rocked in 2014 when an officer in suburban Ferguson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager.
That shooting prompted intense, sometimes violent protests, as did the decision months later not to indict that officer, Darren Wilson. The case, and the protests that followed, garnered worldwide attention, and in many ways it kick-started the intense nationwide focus on how police officers use deadly force, particularly against black men and boys.
Since Ferguson, police shootings or other uses of force - and ensuing decisions not to charge the officers in most of the cases involved - have set off heated protests in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Charlotte and other cities across the country.
But the specter of Ferguson has lingered over the broader St. Louis area, which just last month marked the third anniversary of Brown’s death. It has also fueled a change in the way local officials respond to shootings and potential protests, with officials in some cases hurrying to release information to avoid becoming the “another Ferguson,” as one civil rights leader put it after a police shooting in his community.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said in a statement Friday that she is “appalled” by what happened to Smith.
“I am sobered by this outcome. Frustration, anger, hurt, pain, hope and love all intermingle,” she wrote. “I will continue my work to create a more equitable community.”
On Friday morning, Lawrence O’Toole, the St. Louis police chief, said that while the department knows “emotions are running high,” they also asked people to demonstrate peacefully.
In an off-the-record meeting with local media outlets on Thursday, O’Toole said local residents should consider the message of the protesters expected to gather.
“People have been asking me, ‘Is it safe to go here or there?’ and I tell them to continue to live their lives, just be aware of the larger issues the protesters are trying to call attention to. These issues have to be addressed.” O’Toole said, according to the St. Louis American, the city’s black newspaper. “They are trying to shine the light on the injustices they see and feel.”
Before the verdict, some activists in the St. Louis region pledged “mass disruption” should Stockley wind up getting acquitted, vowing that the outcome would “look a lot like Ferguson.”
Demonstrators began gathering in the streets not long after the acquittal Friday, growing in size as the day wore on.
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, said Smith “died unnecessarily” in 2011.
“This region - and our country as a whole - have seen too many deaths caused by police, with little accountability for the officers or department involved,” Mittman said in a statement.
Smith’s death preceded the wave of police shootings and other uses of force that captured national attention recently. Stockley was ultimately charged last year after new evidence emerged from the St. Louis city police and the FBI, according to the circuit attorney, who did not disclose what that was. According to the circuit attorney’s office, the St. Louis police’s internal affairs investigators contacted them in March 2016 with this new evidence that ultimately made the prosecutor pursue charges.
Prosecutors said during the trial that they believe Stockley, who left the St. Louis police force in 2013, planted a gun on Smith after the shooting.
Attorneys for Stockley said the officer acted in self-defense because he feared that Smith was going to shoot him. When he testified, Stockley denied planting the gun in Smith’s car, saying he first touched it when searching the vehicle.
In his order acquitting Stockley on Friday, Wilson said he did not believe evidence supported the prosecution’s argument that the officer planted the gun.
Wilson outlined a history of the case, saying that Smith’s car crashed into a police vehicle before driving off. Stockley fired shots at Smith’s car before they pursued him in a high-speed car chase that Wilson said lasted three minutes, endangered drivers and pedestrians and was “stressful” for the officers involved.
According to Wilson’s account, which in part is based on the dashboard camera from the police car, Stockley approached Smith’s car with his hand on his holstered gun and then appeared to wrestle “with something or someone at the window.” Stockley is then seen drawing his gun and firing.
A medical examiner later said that Smith had been shot five times, with one bullet going through Smith’s heart, Wilson wrote. The medical examiner could not say whether Smith was reaching for anything when he was shot.
Wilson said that he did not believe Stockley’s actions after the pursuit were “consistent with the conduct of a person intentionally killing another person unlawfully,” noting that Stockley did not immediately open fire when approaching Smith’s car and adding that the officer had been told Smith had a gun.
“No one promised a rose garden, and this surely is not one,” Wilson wrote.
Wilson also discussed Stockley’s comment about killing Smith, saying that the pursuit was stressful for the officers involved, noting that “people say all kinds of things in the heat of the moment or while in stressful situations.”
Bruntrager, Stockley’s attorney, said that while it is terrible when someone loses their life, Stockley felt some “personal satisfaction” because Wilson’s order showed he viewed the former officer as credible.
“Particularly police officers who’ve been through this,” Bruntrager said of officers facing charges or possible charges after fatal shootings. “They know what they know, they know what they saw. When they hear someone say yes, I believe that is what happened, that makes a difference.”
The decision to charge Stockley last year came as the number of law enforcement officers charged for deadly on-duty shootings has increased, which experts have attributed to an increase in video evidence and public pressure. But the increased number of charges have not led to more convictions, which remain very rare in cases involving officers charged for shooting someone or using deadly force while on-duty.
In the span of a week this summer, juries opted against convicting three police officers charged in high-profile shootings that were captured on video. In each of those cases, the video and the case prompted protests and unrest. In each of those cases, prosecutors filed charges and decried what had happened. Each case ended with an acquittal, showing what law enforcement officials and experts say are the limitations of video evidence.
“This not guilty verdict of a police officer who violently killed a citizen is another slap in the face to the black community in St. Louis. And a shot in the heart to the family of the victim,” Missouri State Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, said in a statement issued Friday morning, adding that the verdict has left him “appalled.”
“This system and all the politicians calling for peace are ignoring the pain this verdict causes our communities. Anthony Lamar Smith is dead from a violent act and you want us to be peaceful? You want us to not feel anger? The very people paid to protect us are killing us, paid to make peace are perpetuating violence, and we are supposed to be peaceful?” he wrote. “We will be non-violent but we will not settle on peace. No justice. No peace.”