Last Friday a judge in St. Louis ruled that Officer Jason Stockley was not guilty of 1st degree murder in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a young African American. The pain of the decision will be felt for a long time to come.
When the officer that killed Philando Castille was acquitted in Minnesota, there was frustration, but also understanding and acceptance. In police shootings our society assumes that absent proof of malicious intent, a shooting by an officer was a good faith judgement call made in the heat of the moment. We don’t put officers in jail for doing their job, even if their judgement call proves to have been wrong.
The Stockley case was different. In the car chase before the shooting, the dashcam captures Stockley saying ”we’re going to kill” the driver of the car. A minute later, that’s exactly what happened. If ever there was proof of malicious intent, this would seem to be it.
Stockley and his partner believed they saw a drug deal in progress. Smith, in his car, hit the police cruiser then sped away. Stockley’s partner thought he saw a gun. The officers pursued and after a dangerous high-speed chase they rammed the fleeing car. Stockley approached the driver’s side window, his gun holstered, and began talking. After fifteen seconds Stockley pulled his gun and fired five shots. Stockley said that Smith turned to reach for something, which Stockley believed to be a gun. When Stockley searched Smith’s car he found a revolver and heroin.
The prosecutor contended that Stockley planted the gun in Smith’s car, to justify the shooting. A cellphone video showed Stockley going back and forth from his police cruiser to Smith’s car after the shooting. Smith’s DNA wasn’t found on the gun, Stockley’s was. For many in our African American community this was believable because, well, officers have been found to have planted guns.
People were surprised when the City Prosecutor charged Stockley. The shooting actually happened in 2011 and was investigated by the police, FBI and Eric Holder’s Justice Department, with no charges filed. People wondered if the prosecutor had found a witness that saw Stockley placing the gun, or had somehow connected the gun to him prior to the shooting. Maybe the prosecuting attorney was grandstanding. Maybe she filed charges because she thought in today’s environment she could convince a jury that the officer was lying. Maybe she filed charges because she thought it was the right thing to do.
The prosecutor didn’t get a chance to convince a jury. Stockley’s attorney, not trusting the mood of the times, had Stockley waive his right to a jury trial. The case was decided by an experienced, well respected judge who is nearing retirement.
The case was presented to the judge by a new prosecutor, who made mistakes. The prosecutor insisted that the fifth shot, the “kill” shot, happened after a pause, and this pause proved intent to kill on Stockley’s part. But the prosecution’s own witnesses described the shots as being fired in succession, with no delayed fifth shot. The medical examiners were unable to even say which shot had been fired last. There was no new evidence proving Stockley planted the gun.
The judge’s decision was thirty pages long. He noted that public opinion and pressure should not and did not impact his decision. He noted the discrepancies in the prosecutor’s presentation, and physical evidence that supported Stockley’s description of events. He offered his view that “we’ll kill” the driver was something said in the heat of the moment, and that Stockley’s actions between the statement and the shooting established that he wasn’t acting with malice. He noted that in his experience drug dealers often were armed, and that the prosecutor had not proven beyond doubt that Stockley had planted the gun. Absent definitive proof of Stockley’s malicious intent, the judge saw no reason to strip Stockley of the protections afforded police officers.
I don’t know if Stockley is innocent or guilty. I don’t know what happened during the shooting. Nothing in the judge’s opinion seemed distorted or twisted. But the decision will weigh on our African American community for a long time to come.