After almost six years, a judge confirmed Friday what Jason Stockley had always believed: He was not guilty of murder.
“It feels like a burden has been lifted, but the burden of having to kill someone never really lifts,” he said in an exclusive interview with the Post-Dispatch on Friday. “The taking of someone’s life is the most significant thing one can do, and it’s not done lightly. … My main concern now is for the first responders, the people just trying to go to work and the protesters. I don’t want anyone to be hurt in any way over this.”
Stockley, 36, who now lives in Houston, was charged last year with first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, 24. The shooting happened Dec. 20, 2011, as a police chase ended at West Florissant and Acme avenues.
The chase began after Stockley and his partner Brian Bianchi tried to arrest Smith for a suspected drug deal at a Church’s Chicken at Thekla Avenue and Riverview Boulevard.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson filed his ruling early Friday. Protests soon erupted in downtown St. Louis.
“I can feel for and I understand what the family is going through, and I know everyone wants someone to blame, but I’m just not the guy,” Stockley said.
He said he understood that the video of the shooting looked bad to investigators and the public.
“Every resisting (arrest) looks bad, it never looks good,” Stockley said. “But you have to separate the optics from the facts.”
And that’s what the judge did in the case, he said, noting that Wilson focused on the 15 seconds between the time Stockley left his police car and then unholstered his weapon and fired at Smith as proof that he did not execute him.
Tears welled in the former police officer’s eyes when asked why he had agreed to be interviewed.
“Because I did nothing wrong. If you’re telling the truth and you’ve been wrongly accused, you should shout it from a mountaintop.”
Stockley had been a city police officer for five years when the shooting took place. Before that, he had a military career and was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
He said he chose police work after his tour in Iraq because “it’s based on a foundation of service.”
But, Stockley said, the work can be dangerous. And the level of firepower he was seeing on city streets led him to arm himself with an unauthorized AK-47 pistol with 100 rounds.
“I used it as a deterrent, and I believed it was better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it,” he said.
“I accept full responsibility for violating the rules. But it’s not a moral crime. It’s a rule violation.”
At his trial in August, St. Louis prosecutors alleged Stockley told his partner that he was going to kill Smith while they were pursuing him, then planted a gun on Smith after the shooting.
Stockley can be heard on videotape saying, “Going to kill this (expletive) don’t you know it,” prosecutors said. Stockley said he didn’t remember making the statement or what he said before or after it.
In a 30-page ruling, Wilson said the statement Stockley made to his partner lacked context because everything said before and immediately after was inaudible on in-car camera video.
Stockley’s decision to enter Smith’s vehicle after the shooting was another point prosecutors criticized, saying it made no sense for the officer involved in a shooting to handle evidence. They suggested that was when he planted a gun.
Stockley said Friday that he knew what the gun looked like and he wanted to find it as quickly as possible if Smith had thrown it out the window.
The judge said there was no evidence proving the gun had been planted. It was reasonable for Stockley to believe Smith was reaching for a gun when he shot him, Wilson ruled.
Stockley said the only thing he wished he would have done differently the day of the shooting was “take the day off.”
“I don’t know how changing any number of my actions that day would have changed the outcome,” he said.
He continued: “The decision to use force could be the most important decision you’ll ever make because it could be your last. And regardless of what happens, nobody wins.”
Stockley resigned from the police department in 2013 after a 30-day suspension for carrying the AK-47 pistol on duty. He got a management job with an oil company in Texas.
“I wanted to change careers,” he said.
Internal affairs and FBI investigators investigated the shooting, but no charges were issued until May 2016, when then-Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce charged Stockley with first-degree murder.
Stockley noted that three weeks earlier, demonstrators had protested at Joyce’s home over her decision not to prosecute an officer in a different police shooting.
Stockley said that may have prompted the action in his case. “Jennifer Joyce made an emotional decision for personal and political reasons, not a legal one,” he said Friday.
Stockley was at his home in Houston when police arrived to arrest him. He said he was watching a movie with his wife when their power suddenly went out. He went outside to check the breaker, and noticed only his home was without power.
He turned around to find several Houston police officers with guns drawn. He wondered whether there was some kind of mistake.
Then, he said, he saw two St. Louis police officers.
“That’s when I realized they were there for me and it wasn’t just a power outage,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Stockley has remained in this area since then, as a condition of his bail. He spent his time consumed in the evidence of his case, studying scientific journals and research. His biggest fear about the trial, he said, was that the witnesses would bow to political pressure.
“I feel a sense of relief that no one lied on the stand.”
But the relief goes only so far. He said he feared for his life. During the hourlong interview, when anyone knocked at the door, Stockley put his hand on a gun he kept nearby.
“My life has been in turmoil for some time. I’ve been in a holding pattern. I haven’t been able to be with my family. … I’m trying my best not to let this dictate my life.”
Stockley said he missed being a police officer but didn’t plan to return to the profession.
“For the past year and a quarter I’ve been completely focused on this case, and have never let my mind wander from that. I don’t really have a plan.
“But if I did have one, I wouldn’t tell you.”
A timeline of events and coverage