ST. LOUIS — A white former police officer was acquitted Friday in the 2011 death of a black man who was fatally shot following 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 had 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.
The judge who decided the matter declared that he would not be swayed by “partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism.”
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 and 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.
“This court, in conscience, cannot say that the State has proven every element of murder beyond a reasonable doubt or that the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense,” St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson wrote in the decision .
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.
Assistant Circuit Attorney Robert Steele emphasized during the trial that police dashcam 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.
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.
Fears of unrest prompted several downtown businesses and some schools to close early.
Video from St. Louis television stations showed a crowd that swelled from a handful to several hundred in the hours after the verdict and marched through city streets. The group included black and white protesters and some people carrying guns, which is allowed under state law.