Protesters gathered in downtown St. Louis on Friday not long after news broke that St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson found Jason Stockley, a white former St. Louis police officer, not guilty of first-degree murder in the death of a black man he fatally shot following a high-speed chase in 2011.
Stockley shot 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith five times. The officer said he saw Smith reaching for a gun and felt he was in imminent danger, but prosecutors alleged Stockley planted a gun in Smith’s car after he shot him.
Assistant Circuit Attorney Robert Steele emphasized during the trial that police dashcam video of the chase captured Stockley saying he was “going to kill this (expletive), don’t you know it.” Less than a minute later, the officer fatally shot Smith. Stockley’s lawyer dismissed the comment as “human emotions” amid a dangerous police pursuit.
Stockley, 36, could have been sentenced to up to life in prison without parole. He left St. Louis’ police force in 2013 and moved to Houston.
“This Court, as the trier of fact, is simply not firmly convinced of defendant’s guilt. Agonizingly, this Court has poured over the evidence again and again,” Wilson wrote in the order. “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.”
The state did ask the court to consider lesser degrees of homicide, but did not ask the court to consider other lesser offenses.
“This Court has found that the State did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley did not act in self-defense,” Wilson wrote. “The issue is whether a finding that the defendant was not guilty of an intentional killing based on the defense of self-defense forecloses the possibility of a conviction of a lesser degree of homicide.”
Wilson, who must retire when he turns 70 in December, has been on the bench since 1989.
Some protesters stayed outside the courthouse, while others marched to various locations downtown, including the entrance ramp to Highway 40, where police were already stationed and prevented them from entering the highway, and the St. Louis Police Headquarters.
Among protesters was Ziah Reddick, of the Universal African Peoples Organization, who said she attended the trial, viewed the video and heard testimony of witnesses in the case. She believed Stockley should have been found guilty, she said.
“The injustice of this verdict is heartbreaking to the community,” she said. “We cannot just sit and do nothing.”
She said her organization has a plan of action that looks beyond the initial response, and is looking at a long-range plan to respond to and improve the justice system. Part of that change will be enacting legislation to change the system and doing away with unfair laws, she said.
“We feel the justice system as it is is only for white privilege,” she said. “Black people don’t get any kind of justice in the system.”
Lawyers have a role to play in making those changes because they understand the system and can work within it, she said.
“Come out here and stand with us, meet with us,” Reddick said. “You are lawyers, you have access to information we don’t. You have access to information that can help us.”
A few legal observers, wearing the signature fluorescent green baseball caps, were also among the crowd, including Scott Kampas, an independent paralegal.
“We come out here and watch and document police conduct at protests,” Kampas said, adding that they specifically look for any violations of protesters rights.
The ACLU and ArchCity Defenders both released statements shortly after the verdict.
“While many police officers act respectfully toward those they serve, we must acknowledge how regularly communities of color experience racial profiling and abuse from local law enforcement, including here in the St. Louis region,” the statement from Jeffrey A. Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said. “This is a longstanding and tragic trend that began well before the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 and has continued since.”
The ACLU stands with those who will continue to fight for racial justice, it continued.
“We hope this verdict is a wake-up call that the community and the police must come together now to build trust and ensure justice,” Mittman said in the statement.
The ArchCity Defenders statement said it was a “devastating verdict” that “reinforces the message that law enforcement can use fatal, excessive force against communities of color and turn to the courts for protection.”
“Three years after the Ferguson Uprising, St. Louis finds itself in the same place. The continued disregard for black life and the failure to hold police accountable creates heightened tensions between police and the community. We will continue to demand justice and are committed to using every tool available to do so,” said Kayla Reed, who is a board member of ArchCity Defenders.
The case is State v. Stockley, 1622-CR02213-01.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.