With intense media scrutiny and highly polarized public opinion, taking on the case of Jason Stockley, a white St. Louis police officer recently found not guilty of murder in the fatal shooting of a black man in 2011, was no easy task.
But Neil Bruntrager, a Clayton attorney who has represented Stockley since the 2011 shooting, had no hesitation about continuing to do so when Stockley was charged with first-degree murder last year and a trial became imminent.
He had the history with the case and with dealing with officer involved shooting cases – he and co-counsel Brian Millikan are counsel for police officer associations in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Bruntrager also had a history with another high-profile, high-tension case. He represented Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who fatally shot Michael Brown in 2014. That experience helped prepare him for the Stockley case, he said.
“In the Darren Wilson case, there hadn’t been a playbook. I think we wrote the playbook in that case, and I think we followed it here, which was to focus on the facts and make sure people understood the facts,” he said.
History representing officers
Bruntager’s history representing police officers dates back to the 1980s. He said he befriended many police officers while working as a prosecutor in the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s office and when he moved into private practice in the mid-80s he began representing officers in internal matters.
Millikan worked as a St. Louis police officer before going to law school. After he became an attorney, a former associate approached him about doing some work for the department.
Through their work with police departments, the pair has experience with police involved shootings, although those are typically dealt with through internal investigations.
Criminal charges and a trial are rare in such cases, but the attorneys said the lack of precedent didn’t present any extra challenge.
“You’re still focusing on the facts, you’re still focusing on witnesses and expert testimony. In that sense, to me it wasn’t a whole lot different,” Millikan said.
The polarized public, particularly in St. Louis, did present a problem for the case.
To deal with it, lawyers asked for a change of venue, and when that was rejected, they decided to waive the right to a jury trial.
Bruntrager said that was because it would take too long to get an unbiased jury. They also did some polling that revealed even if people weren’t familiar with the case itself, many had strong feelings about police officers.
“We were really concerned that was going to get in the way of the facts of this case,” Bruntrager said.
Their biggest concern was that they were missing something – the charges were filed in light of new evidence – but there were no surprises at trial.
“I kept waiting for something we weren’t prepared for to happen at trial, but it never did,” Millikan said.
The greatest asset to the defense, Bruntrager said, was Stockley himself. Stockley did not have to testify, but his story, and response to the accusations, was essential to their case.
“We felt people needed to hear from him,” he said.
Another key to the not guilty verdict was video footage, which the lawyers said makes it clear that Stockley couldn’t have planted a gun as prosecutors alleged.
“The dash cam video is the single most important piece of evidence,” Bruntrager said.
‘These cases are like no other cases’
Although they knew protests were likely to follow the verdict, the attorneys said they weren’t too worried about their own safety.
Bruntrager said he’s never had a problem with any violence, but has had people write angry letters, emails or tweets to him. His response is “we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”
“We’re doing what the constitution demands,” he said.
High-profile cases like Stockley’s and Wilson’s do take a toll on attorneys, however, because they are so demanding, Bruntrager said.
“These cases are like no other cases that you’re doing,” he said.
Every aspect of the case will be scrutinized and dissected and “everybody in the world who doesn’t know the evidence like we know the evidence will be giving their opinions about what we did right and what we did wrong,” he said.
“It’s amazing how much of a drain it is physically and emotionally when cases like these are out there,” he said.
The Wilson case was different, Bruntrager said, because it didn’t go to trial. The real stress, he said, was waiting for the grand jury and federal decisions.
Waiting for the judge’s order in the Stockley case was difficult, too, Bruntrager said, because the attorneys couldn’t discuss the case until it came down.
“There had been so many misrepresentations, that was really the hard part of this, and we couldn’t say anything to fix this,” he said.
More to come
Although the case remains in focus for now, neither attorney anticipates it will have much of a long-term impact on their business. Bruntrager said the Wilson case didn’t in any way he’s noticed.
“You’re in the spotlight for a moment and then it goes away,” Millikan said.
The experience did, however, give them some insight into what to expect in future cases. Millikan expects more cases like this will be prosecuted.
Bruntrager said he has realized now more than ever that there will be “misrepresentation problems because it suits some political agenda,” and that the lawyers have to think beyond just fighting the battle in the courtroom.
“That probably is the most difficult because they don’t teach you that in law school, that’s the sort of thing you learn through experience, and just when you think you’ve got it, the rules change,” he said.