ST. LOUIS • The acquittal of former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley on a first-degree murder charge is not unusual, based both on the history of police shootings and the law that governs police use of force, legal experts said.
What is unusual was that Stockley was ever charged with first-degree murder.
In his 30-page ruling Friday, St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson said prosecutors’ claims that Stockley executed Anthony Lamar Smith and then planted a gun were not supported by the evidence. Prosecutors, he said, failed to prove a murder case and failed to disprove that Stockley acted in self-defense, as required for conviction.
Stockley shot Smith on Dec. 20, 2011, after a high-speed chase that began when Stockley and his partner, Brian Bianchi, tried to arrest Smith for a suspected drug deal.
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After Bianchi and Stockley rammed the back of Smith’s car at West Florissant and Acme avenues, both officers got out and approached Smith’s driver’s side door. After 15 seconds, Stockley fired his 9mm pistol five times at Smith.
Prosecutors had called it an “execution,” pointing to what they claimed was the fifth, “kill shot” and Stockley’s “prophetic words” to his partner during the police chase that he or they were “going to kill this (expletive), don’t you know it.” They also said Stockley’s DNA on the revolver found in Smith’s car showed that he planted the gun to justify the killing.
But Stockley, now 36, testified at the trial that he perceived an imminent, deadly threat to himself and others. He said Smith was reaching for something in the car, and he thought it was the gun that both he and his partner saw when they first tried to stop Smith. After the shooting, Stockley said he touched the gun only to unload it.
Bianchi told internal affairs investigators that he saw Smith with a silver handgun before the chase, and Smith appeared to be reaching for something when Stockley fired, after the crash.
Bianchi’s lawyer, Jim Towey, said Friday that he did not know what motivated former Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce to charge Stockley. But he speculated she may have given in to public pressure after the release of police and bystander videos. (Joyce charged Stockley three weeks after Smith’s family held a news conference demanding criminal charges.)
Joyce “had the perfect opportunity to say that two federal agencies looked at it — the U.S. attorney’s office and the Department of Justice — and say that ‘I agree with the decisions that have been made, and I’m not going to prosecute,’” Towey said.
Joyce knew she wasn’t going to be in office by the time Stockley’s case came to trial, however, Towey said, leaving a “hot potato” in the hands of her successor Kim Gardner who “had no choice but to run with it.”
Joyce said in a text message to the Post-Dispatch on Friday that she was “confident that the citizens understand why this case was prosecuted.”
Lawyer Albert Watkins, who represented Smith’s fiancée in a civil suit that was settled for $900,000, said of the verdict Friday, “Personally, I’m appalled. Professionally, I understand the judge’s decision. It’s a huge legal burden, and it’s that way by design.”
Other lawyers had a similar take.
But the verdict was immediately blasted by protesters and activists. The case has become a rallying cry for activists seeking to highlight injustice and police violence.
Washington University law professor Peter Joy, who read the decision after it was released Friday morning, said the legal burden is “intentionally high” in prosecuting police for on-duty shootings. “I think it reflects a decision state legislators have made that in order to promote public safety and the safety of police officers” in stressful situations, where decisions have to be made quickly, “There’s this level of (legal) protection that they’re given.”
Joy said that once Wilson “reached the conclusion that it wasn’t first-degree murder, the next thing he considered was is there a valid self-defense” argument. He concluded there was, Joy said, “and self-defense would negate any of the other possible charges in the case,” like second-degree murder or manslaughter.
Anders Walker, a St. Louis University law professor, said in an interview last month that, “Traditionally, it’s not unusual for officers to be acquitted or not even charged. I think it’s only since 2014 that we as a state, and maybe a nation, have become interested in this issue of lethal force,” referring to the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
A 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision said an officer’s decision to use force must be judged on the totality of circumstances and a standard of “objective reasonableness” from the perspective of a “reasonable officer” rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
The reasonableness standard in deadly force laws required Wilson to rule based on Stockley’s frame of mind in deciding if he reasonably feared for his life or others when firing and whether another officer in the same situation would have believed force was necessary.
Local defense attorney Joel Schwartz pointed to one line in the ruling, where Wilson wrote, “No one promised a rose garden, and this surely is not one.”
“That tells you the whole story right there. He possibly didn’t like what he had to do but he’s beholden to following the law. The state couldn’t firmly convince him of the defendant’s guilt,” Schwartz said.
There were “all sorts of possibilities” about a planted weapon or other things, Schwartz said, “but all of those are conjecture and none of them are proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Available data on police killings show few officers go to trial for shooting deaths, and they’re rarely convicted.
Stockley was the first police officer to stand trial for murder in St. Louis since 2001, when a jury acquitted then Officer Robert Dodson in the 1999 beating death of a burglary suspect on the roof of a pawnshop.
Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminologist who has gathered data on deadly police shootings across the country since 2005, said on-duty police officers kill about 1,000 people a year in the United States.
Over the past 12 years, he said, 83 officers have been charged in fatal shootings.
None of them was convicted by a judge in a bench trial. One in three cases resulted in a guilty plea or the officer being found guilty by a jury.
Stinson says juries are usually sympathetic to law enforcement.
“People are very reluctant to second-guess police officers who have to make split-second life-or-death decisions,” Stinson said. “It’s got to be one of the most over-the-top, egregious cases in order to get a conviction against a police officer.”