ST. LOUIS • Former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley testified Tuesday that he feared Anthony Lamar Smith was going to shoot him after a high-speed chase in 2011.
Prosecutors say Stockley declared that he was going to murder Smith and planted a revolver inside Smith’s car to justify the killing.
On Wednesday, lawyers on both sides will give closing arguments in Stockley’s first-degree murder trial that began Aug. 1 before St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson. And because Stockley waived his right to a jury trial, Wilson will decide Stockley’s guilt or innocence.
Tuesday delivered the trial’s most compelling testimony thus far as Stockley took the stand and gave his first public account of how and why he took Smith’s life.
Stockley, 36, who now lives in Houston, testified Tuesday that he believed Smith was an “imminent threat” to him, his partner and the residents of St. Louis.
“I was rattled, to say the least,” Stockley said of his mindset immediately after the shooting. “I just had to shoot someone. Whatever the normal human response to that would be, it’s not a good one.”
Stockley, who answered questions for about four hours, testified that he and his partner, Officer Brian Bianchi, were in a parking lot at Church’s Chicken, at Thekla Avenue and Riverview Boulevard, about 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 20, 2011, when he saw what he believed to be a hand-to-hand drug deal between two people. One of them was the 24-year-old Smith.
When they tried to block Smith’s silver Buick, Stockley said he heard his partner yell “Gun!” as Smith backed into the police car twice. Stockley said Smith drove toward him and nearly knocked his gun from his hand.
He said he saw Smith’s left hand on the steering wheel and his right hand holding a silver revolver resting on the passenger seat.
On cross-examination, First Assistant Circuit Attorney Robert Steele questioned how Smith could have had steered the car with his left hand, shifted the car with his right while clutching a gun in his right. Stockley insisted he saw Smith’s hand on a gun.
After Smith maneuvered out of the parking lot with what Stockley described as a “five-point turn,” Stockley fired seven 9 mm rounds at the car with his Beretta pistol, testifying that he felt justified in using deadly force.
Steele asked Stockley why Bianchi holstered his duty pistol at that point, suggesting that Smith was unarmed.
Stockley’s lawyer objected, saying Stockley couldn’t know the answer.
“Because he don’t like living, I guess,” Steele quipped. “Your partner did not pull his weapon back out. We see (on video that) Bianchi still does not draw his weapon out. He chose not to.”
Smith led the officers on a three-mile chase at speeds that reached at least 87 mph before a crash at West Florissant and Acme avenues. Stockley then fatally shot Smith, claiming he believed Smith was reaching for a gun.
Stockley was carrying his personal Draco AK-47 pistol on the day of the shooting, in violation of department policy.
During a tense cross-examination Tuesday afternoon, Steele focused on police department rules that Stockley ignored.
Stockley said that he knew having his AK-47 was a violation but said he felt outgunned after observing military-grade shell casings at several recent shootings in the Walnut Park neighborhood; he also said the 2010 mass shooting at ABB Inc. in St. Louis had been on his mind.
Asked why he knowingly violated the policy, Stockley said: “Because I valued the lives of my and the other officers more than the policy.”
Stockley testified he did not fire the AK-47 at Smith’s fleeing vehicle either at the Church’s Chicken or after the crash because he knew its power could endanger his partner or innocent bystanders.
Steele also repeatedly asked why Stockley himself — and not at least 10 other officers at the crash scene — searched Smith’s car.
“That would have been great, to avoid all of this nonsense,” Stockley said, gesturing at the courtroom.
To which Steele retorted, “To avoid all of this nonsense — after you killed a man.”
Chase ‘needed to end’
Stockley’s attorney Neil Bruntrager questioned Stockley while playing surveillance, police dash camera and bystander cellphone videos in the courtroom.
During the chase, the police SUV crashed into a street sign and a tree; Bianchi then nearly turned the wrong way. Stockley testified that he yelled multiple commands at Bianchi, who at the time had just 1½ years on the force, because he felt “the pursuit was not going well.”
Previous evidence has revealed that during the chase, Stockley reported “shots fired” several times to dispatchers over a police radio. He says something about shooting Smith, which court records reveal as “Going to kill this (expletive), don’t you know it.”
Stockley said he has “no recollection” of saying that during the chase.
“I don’t deny that I said it,” Stockley said. “I’m not saying it’s not me. During a vehicle pursuit, there are many things that are said.”
Bruntrager asked if he had at that point made the decision to kill Smith. Stockley said no, adding that “it’s hard for me to elaborate even what the context was, because I don’t even know.”
Stockley said he does remember telling Bianchi to “hit him right now!” when Smith swerved into oncoming traffic on West Florissant Avenue.
After Bianchi and Stockley rear-ended Smith’s car, both officers got out and Stockley approached it. Stockley said he recalled lifting up the deployed driver’s-side airbag and not seeing a gun. Smith appeared to be reaching for something between the center console and the passenger seat. At one point, Stockley said, Smith’s facial expression changed.
“That was the moment where I believed the suspect retrieved the weapon that was in the car,” Stockley said. “I thought his gun might come up and shoot at me.”
Stockley fired several shots into the car, killing Smith about 15 seconds after the crash. Stockley said he believes it was Bianchi who shut off the dashboard camera shortly after the shooting.
Denies planting weapon
Stockley testified that Smith’s hands weren’t moving. He said he returned to the police SUV and put his AK-47 inside.
Stockley said he returned again to the police SUV to retrieve a “quick clot” pack, which he stuffed in his left breast pocket. He said after police pulled Smith’s body from the car, he climbed in to search for the gun. He said he found a revolver stuffed between the center console and passenger seat.
Stockley said he never applied the clot pack to Smith because of the severity of his gunshot wounds.
“It was futile,” Stockley said.
Police reports and testimony from crime lab scientists say Stockley’s DNA — but not Smith’s — was on the .38-caliber Taurus revolver that police said was found in Smith’s car. Stockley doesn’t deny touching the gun and said he removed his gloves before going into Smith’s car because they would have hindered his ability to search.
“The first time I ever touched that gun was inside the suspect’s vehicle,” Stockley said.
Bruntrager asked him, “Did you place (the revolver) in the Buick?”
“Absolutely not,” Stockley said.
During cross-examination, Stockley said he decided to search the Buick because he had spotted the gun earlier and knew where to look. He said he assumed unloading the revolver is how he left his DNA on it.
“DNA is a very bizarre substance,” Stockley said.
“Very bizarre — ha, ha,” Steele responded. “Very bizarre.”
Stockley is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who was injured while serving in the Army in Iraq. He testified Tuesday that he graduated from the police academy in 2007 with awards for best overall officer, best academics and best in defensive tactics.