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Editorial: A threat of Ferguson-like protests hangs over Stockley verdict

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Barricades erected around courthouses in advance of Stockley verdict

Rodney McMahan, lead utility worker with St. Louis city, carries a barricade to the rear of the Civil Courts building in downtown St. Louis on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. Both Civil Courts and the Carnahan courthouses are being surrounded by barricades in advance of the verdict in the Jason Stockley case. Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer, is accused of murder in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith after a police chase in 2011. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

A protest scene Monday on the steps of the Carnahan Courthouse downtown recalled countless Western movies where angry vigilantes demand that the sheriff turn over the prisoner. In this case, the vigilantes were activists demanding a guilty verdict from St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson in the murder case against former city police officer Jason Stockley.

The threat of violence and delivery of an ultimatum to a sitting judge follows a disturbing trend in this country whenever activists decide America’s constitutional framework falls short of their expectations. They’re wrong if they believe vigilante action is morally or legally justified.

Stockley waived his right to a jury trial, opting to let Wilson alone decide if he’s guilty of murder in the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, 24. Stockley’s shooting of Smith was caught on video. The question is whether the officer had reasonable fear for his own safety.

The activists threatened “mass disruption” if Stockley is acquitted. Tory Russell, 33, of St. Louis, said, “It’s going to look a lot like Ferguson. It’s going to be a hundred-plus days, three hundred-plus days of direct action,” the Post-Dispatch’s Joel Currier reported.

The Rev. Clinton Stancil of the Wayman AME Church in St. Louis claimed that the clergy community supports activists “100 percent” in whatever response protesters make. But responsible community and church leaders know better.

The frustration among the protesters is understandable considering the evidence against Stockley, who resigned from the police force in August 2013. The criminal investigation into Smith’s shooting dragged on for 4½ years until then-Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce filed charges in May 2016 — three weeks after activists had demanded prosecution.

In 2013, the state-run Board of Police Commissioners settled a federal wrongful death suit against Stockley for $900,000.

Investigative files from the federal case were sealed. But then-Police Chief Sam Dotson had ordered new forensic studies of evidence in the case and forwarded the department’s findings to Joyce’s office. Among the findings was that audio from the police car’s dashboard camera had caught Stockley saying during the pursuit that he was “going to kill this (expletive deleted), don’t you know it.”

All of this was part of the trial that ended on Aug. 9, along with forensic evidence showing Stockley’s DNA, but not Smith’s, on the gun found in Smith’s car. The prosecution charged that Stockley had planted the gun.

The city Police Officers Association posted the $100,000 cash bond that freed Stockley after his arrest. Loyalty is an admirable trait, but too often in St. Louis people choose up sides before the evidence is in.

Any violent protests after the verdict would create the same problem as the “Antifa” protests against white supremacists. Citizens who use violence in the name of justice only perpetuate injustice.

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