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November 23, 2017

Judge acquits ex-officer in killing


Judge acquits ex-officer in killing

ST. LOUIS — A white former police officer was acquitted Friday in the 2011 death of a black man who…


ST. LOUIS — A white former police officer was acquitted Friday in the 2011 death of a black man who was fatally shot after a high-speed chase, and hundreds of demonstrators streamed into the streets of downtown St. Louis to protest the verdict that had stirred fears of civil unrest for weeks.

Ahead of the acquittal, activists threatened civil disobedience if Jason Stockley were not convicted, including possible efforts to shut down highways. Barricades went up last month around police headquarters, the courthouse where the trial was held and other potential protest sites. Protesters were on the march within hours of the decision. By midafternoon, officers had used pepper spray on some demonstrators.

The judge who decided the matter declared that he would not be swayed by “partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism.”

“No one promised a rose garden, and this surely is not one,” St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson wrote of the case.

[Read about recent fatal shootings by police across the country.]

“This court, as the trier of fact, is simply not firmly convinced of defendant’s guilt. Agonizingly, this court has pored over the evidence again and again. … This court, in conscience, cannot say that the state has proven every element of murder beyond a reasonable doubt or that the defendant did not act in self-defense.”

Because the state did not prove Stockley did not act in self-defense, Wilson wrote, he could not address lesser charges of homicide or manslaughter.

The case played out not far from the suburb of Ferguson, which was the scene of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old who was killed by a white police officer in 2014. That officer was never charged but eventually resigned.

Stockley, who was charged with first-degree murder, insisted he saw Anthony Lamar Smith holding a gun and felt he was in imminent danger. Prosecutors said the officer planted a gun in Smith’s car after the shooting. The officer asked the case to be decided by a judge instead of a jury.

In a written statement, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner acknowledged the difficulty of winning police shooting cases but said prosecutors believe they “offered sufficient evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt” that Stockley intended to kill Smith.

The head of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP asked President Donald Trump and the Justice Department to review the acquittal.

Assistant Circuit Attorney Robert Steele emphasized during the trial that police dashboard camera 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 shot Smith five times. Stockley’s lawyer dismissed the comment as “human emotions” uttered during a dangerous police pursuit. The judge wrote that the statement “can be ambiguous depending on the context.”

Prosecutors objected to the officer’s request for a bench trial.

The Constitution guarantees the right of criminal suspects to have their cases heard “by an impartial jury.” But defendants can also opt to have the verdict rendered by a judge.

Mayor Lyda Krewson released a statement after the verdict saying, “I am appalled at what happened to Anthony Lamar Smith.”

“I am sobered by this outcome. Frustration, anger, hurt, pain, hope and love all intermingled. I encourage St. Louisans to show each other compassion, to recognize that we all have different experiences and backgrounds and that we all come to this with real feelings and experiences,” she wrote.

Stockley, 36, could have been sentenced to up to life in prison without parole. He left the St. Louis police force in 2013 and moved to Houston.

The case was among several in recent years in which a white officer killed a black suspect. Officers were acquitted in recent police shooting trials in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. A case in Ohio twice ended with hung juries, and prosecutors have decided not to seek a third trial.

Ahead of the verdict — and the threat of violent protests — Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens took steps to activate the National Guard. Police officers in St. Louis and St. Louis County were put on 12-hour shifts, and several St. Louis schools called off classes for Friday. Barricades went up around downtown courthouses and the police station, and at least one downtown business boarded up its windows.

Protester efforts at civil disobedience were largely unsuccessful. When several demonstrators tried to rush onto Interstate 64, they were blocked on an entrance ramp by police cars and officers on bikes. When they tried to enter the city’s convention center, the doors were locked.

In Smith’s case, the encounter began when Stockley and his partner tried to corner Smith in a fast-food restaurant parking lot after seeing what appeared to be a drug deal. Stockley testified that he saw what he believed was a gun, and his partner yelled “gun!” as Smith backed into the police SUV twice to get away.

Stockley’s attorney, Neil Bruntrager, argued that Smith, a 24-year-old parole violator with previous convictions for gun and drug crimes, tried to run over the two officers. Stockley fired seven shots as Smith sped away. A chase ensued.

At the end of the chase, Stockley opened fire only when Smith, still in his car, refused commands to put up his hands and reached along the seat “in the area where the gun was,” Bruntrager said. Stockley said he climbed into Smith’s car and found a revolver between the center console and passenger seat.

But prosecutors questioned why Stockley dug into a bag in the back seat of the police SUV before returning to Smith’s car.

The gun found in Smith’s car did not have his DNA on it, but it did have Stockley’s.

Information for this article was contributed by Jim Salter and Summer Ballentine of The Associated Press and by Joel Currier and Jeremy Kohler of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

A Section on 09/16/2017


Source: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Judge acquits ex-officer in killing

Judge acquits ex-officer in killing

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