Protesters clashed with police wearing riot gear after a judge on Friday found former St. Louis Police officer and Belleville native Jason Stockley not guilty of first-degree murder.
Stockley, who is white, had been charged in connection with the 2011 fatal shooting of a black man while Stockley was on duty. The judge ruled that prosecutors did not prove that Stockley did not act in self-defense.
Stockley, in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said he felt relief.
“It feels like a burden has been lifted, but the burden of having to kill someone never really lifts,” Stockley told the newspaper. “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.”
He added, “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.”
He said his future plans were uncertain: “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.”
The intensity of protests grew as nightfall approached Friday. Police with shields and riot gear used pepper spray on some protestors. City officials, at a press conference, said about 20 protesters were arrested when they became disruptive or damaged property, including a police vehicle. A video tweeted by city police showed demonstrators jumping and dancing on the hood of a police cruiser.
About 6:30 p.m., police called for demonstrators downtown to disperse, saying the protest “is no longer considered peaceful.” Some demonstrators called for protests to move to the Central West End.
St. Louis police reported that demonstrators were throwing rocks and water bottles at police. Police said four officers were assaulted, including one who was treated for a hand injury.
In the evening, protesters moved to the upscale Central West End section of St. Louis, where a large group marched through streets chanting as people looked on from restaurants and the windows of hospitals lining busy Kingshighway. The group attempted to march onto Interstate 64 via a nearby entrance, but a large contingent of police is blocked the path. As the night went on, the protests there appeared peaceful.
The trendy Central West End includes Missouri’s largest hospital, Barnes-Jewish, along with the Washington University Medical School, St. Louis Children’s Hospital and dozens of tech firms.
Police blocked the entrance to nearby Forest Park to prevent protesters from disrupting an event that was part of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race.
The verdict, announced about 9 a.m., immediately sent protesters marching down streets in downtown St. Louis. Some tried to get onto interstates, but police blocked access. Several businesses closed early and sent home employees. Schools also closed, and canceled weekend activities. Aerial footage from TV stations showed National Guard vehicles rolling into the city.
“This is what community looks like, this is what democracy looks like,” one woman yelled repeatedly at police — clad in riot helmets, protective gear and standing behind shields — as they formed a line at Tucker and Spruce and looked silently at the crowd. “It is our duty to fight for our freedom, it’s our duty to win ...We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
At one point, a group of the protesters stood in front of a city bus filled with officers, blocking it from moving forward. The bus backed up and protesters again tried to stop it, with a few throwing water bottles. The bus moved less than a block before police began pushing back the crowd.
As protesters resisted, two women told the Associated Press that police used pepper spray. Both women’s faces had been doused with milk, which is used to counter the effects of pepper spray.
Before the vedict was announced, black clergy members had called for the judge to convict Stockley. And some black leaders warned there would be protests in the event of an acquittal.
Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson said those were not factors in his decision.
“A judge shall not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism,” Wilson wrote in the verdict.
St. Louis leaders and others, including the fiancee of the dead man, called for protests to remain peaceful.
Al Watkins, an attorney for the family of the man who was shot by Stockley, called the verdict “appallingly contrary to all of the evidence that was presented.”
“We have a right to be angry. We have a right to protest,” Watkins told reporters Friday morning. “Exploit that right. Don’t compromise it. Stay peaceful.”
Stockley fatally shot Anthony Lamar Smith on Dec. 20, 2011. Stockley was charged with murder and tried in a bench trial that ended Aug. 9. Stockley also was acquitted on a charge of armed criminal action.
Prosecutors argued that Stockley planted a handgun in Smith’s car after shooting him five times, and committed premeditated murder. The defense argued that Stockley acted reasonably and shot Smith in self-defense.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner issued a statement saying she is “disappointed with the court’s finding.”
The police originally told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that two officers observed what they believed to be a drug transaction, and when they approached the car, they saw Smith reaching for something under the seat. Smith then allegedly put the car in gear and drove toward them, and they fired.
However, it was after Smith’s car crashed that they shot him several times, according to multiple news reports. During the trial, prosecutors said Stockley fired from less than six inches away. A recording in the car quoted Stockley as saying “we’re killing this (expletive)” during the pursuit.
The judge wrote, “People say all kinds of things in the heat of the moment or while in stressful situations, and whether Stockley’s statement that ‘we’re killing this (expletive),’ which can be ambiguous depending on the context, constituted a real threat of action or was a means of releasing tension has to be judged by his subsequent conduct. The court does not believe Stockley’s conduct immediately following the end of the pursuit is consistent with the conduct of a person intentionally killing another person unlawfully.”
A dashboard camera showed Stockley rifling through a bag in the back of his squad car, but it could not be seen what he retrieved. The defense argued that it was first aid supplies, but an officer testified that no one attempted to render aid to Smith at the scene, according to KMOV.
The judge, in his verdict, said he wasn’t convinced that Stockley planted the gun. The judge wrote that, based on his nearly 30 years on the bench, “an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.”
But demonstrators said the evidence against Stockley was overwhelming.
“Black lives do matter. And it’s an embarrassment to me when somebody is not convicted when there’s literally audio and video,” said protester Princella Jones of St. Louis, drawing parallels between the Stockley and Ferguson verdicts.
“I see that it was two racist cops that killed two unarmed black men that were surrendering. I just want justice for my community. I want somebody, if they’re guilty, they’re guilty.”
Another protester, Kenya Artis, said: “I’m just out here for justice for our people. When cops kill civilians they’re not guilty. When civilians kills civilians, they spend their whole lives in jail.”
Artis said she thinks everyone should serve the same punishment for the same crime.
“You want to get away with murder? Be a cop. That’s all I have to say. We are tired of protesting, we are sick of it.”
Stockley is a Belleville native, graduating from Althoff Catholic High School in 1998. He later graduated from West Point and served in the U.S. Army in Iraq, earning a Bronze Star in combat. He joined the St. Louis Police Department in 2007.
Stockley continued to work on active duty for five more years until his retirement in 2013. However, Smith’s family won a $900,000 wrongful-death suit against him in 2016, and evidence released from that suit led to criminal charges of first-degree murder. He was arrested in Texas.
The trial took place last month before Wilson. As a bench trial, there was no jury.
The judge wrote: “No one promised a rose garden, and this surely is not one. Missouri law requires that the trier of fact be ‘firmly convinced’ of the defendant’s guilt in order to convict. As stated above, the burden on the State to prove a criminal defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt applies to every criminal defendant. The requirement that the State meet it’s burden of proof is not a mere ‘technicality’ and the instant case is not decided on a technicality.
The judge continued: “This Court, as the trier of fact, is simply not firmly convinced of defendant’s guilt. Agonizingly, this court has poured over the evidence again and again. This Court has viewed the video evidence from the restaurant’s surveillance camera, the cameras in the police vehicle, and the cell phone video by the lay witness, over and over again innumerable times.”
The judge’s ruling concluded: “This court, in conscience, cannot say that the State has proved every element of murder beyond a reasonable doubt or that the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant did not act in self-defense.”
Some journalists covering the demonstrations said they were the targets of threats and violence from protesters. A freelance videographer for The Associated Press said a protester approached him, took his camera and threw it to the ground, breaking the view finder. Later in the day while he was using a different camera, he said he was surrounded by six men who told him to put the camera away or he’d be beaten.
A reporter for KTVI in St. Louis reported that a protester taunted him about the media, drawing a crowd. The reporter described the group as being angry and in his face, and said three water bottles were thrown at him.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.