On Friday, Sept. 15, a judge’s decision to acquit a former St. Louis officer in a fatal shooting of a black man resulted in pro- tests throughout St. Louis.
Anthony Lamar Smith was shot five times by Jason Stockley on Dec. 20, 2011 after he fled the scene of a suspected drug deal. Prosecutors claimed that Stockley was recorded on an internal camera during his chase saying that he intended to kill Smith. Initial police reports explained the officers at- tempted to approach Smith behind a restaurant north of St. Louis when he fled in his car. As Smith’s car slowed, prosecutors said Stockley had instructed his partner who drove their SUV to ram Smith’s car. “Stockley then approached Smith’s car on the driver’s side and shot five times into the car, striking Smith with each shot,” former St. Louis Circuit Attorney, Jennifer Joyce said.
Stockley, who worked in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department for four years, told investigators that he believed Smith was reaching for a hand- gun. However, Joyce said the only gun found in the scene was in Smith’s car with Stockley’s DNA.
In May 2016, Stockley was arrested and charged with first- degree murder. He was accused of intentionally killing Smith and planting a gun in his car. However, Stockley testified that he acted in self-defense. Last Friday, Stockley was found not guilty by St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson.
During the trial, Wilson wrote that he was “not firmly convinced” of Stockley’s guilt. Wilson said that he “agonizingly” went over the case’s evidence multiple times. Wilson was not convinced that the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley “did not act in self-defense.” In other words, there was not enough evidence to prove that Stockley intentionally killed Smith.
Since last Friday, dozens of people were arrested in St. Louis for vandalism while protests broke out. While a majority of protests remained nonviolent, several turned chaotic after dark when demonstrators vandalized businesses and threw objects at police officers, causing a few concerts to be canceled for lack of proper security. Big employers such as Wells Fargo, Stifel, Nestle and other companies sent their workers home early as a precaution.
Missouri State Representative Michael Butler said in a statement issued Friday morning that the verdict left him “appalled.” Butler continued, “This not guilty verdict of a police officer who violently killed a citizen is another slap in the face to the black community in St. Louis. And a shot in the heart to the family of the victim. This system and all the politicians calling for peace are ignoring the pain this verdict causes our communities. Anthony Lamar Smith is dead from a violent act and you want us to be peaceful? You want us to not feel anger? The very people paid to protect us are killing us, paid to make peace are perpetuating violence, and we are supposed to be peaceful? We will be nonviolent but we will not settle on peace. No justice. No peace.”
This recent trial rekindled racial tensions as the city feared a repeat of 2014 with the murder of Michael Brown. However, this specific case demonstrates why it is difficult to punish cops for impulsive shootings.
According to the law that resulted from Tennessee v. Garner, police officers only have to reasonably perceive a threat for a shooting to be justified—even if a threat is not actually there. Both Stockley and his partner claimed they saw a gun from Smith before Stockley shot him, which would be enough to legally justify a shooting under these standards.