It happened again: A white police officer accused of unnecessarily shooting and killing a black man was found not guilty by a court.
The latest case is in St. Louis. There, a judge on Friday found former local police officer Jason Stockley not guilty of first-degree murder for the 2011 shooting of black motorist Anthony Lamar Smith. “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 declared in his ruling.
Stockley shot and killed Smith after a police chase over an alleged drug deal, claiming that he feared the 24-year-old black man was reaching into his car to grab a gun. But prosecutors argued that Stockley had planted a revolver to justify the killing.
As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, videos show Stockley going back to a police vehicle to go through a duffel bag. Then Smith, who’s dead at this point, is pulled out of his car, and Stockley goes into Smith’s vehicle. Prosecutors suggested that was when he allegedly put the revolver in Smith’s car.
Prosecutors claimed that Stockley can also be heard in police dashboard camera video saying that he’s “going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it.” Stockley’s defense insisted he never said this, and it is hard to make out in the video.
Tests found that the revolver only had Stockley’s DNA, not Smith’s. But several videos of the scene never captured Stockley actually carrying the gun.
Judge Wilson said he wasn’t convinced after “[a]gonizingly” going over the evidence. He argued that the gun was too large for Stockley to have successfully hidden it from the cameras, and, citing expert witnesses, that the lack of DNA evidence doesn’t mean Smith didn’t own the gun. And he said it would be strange if Smith didn’t have a gun, given that he was believed to be a drug dealer: “Finally, the Court observes, based on its nearly thirty years on the bench, that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.”
Already, the verdict has inspired protests in the St. Louis area, near where protesters also demonstrated against the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. For protesters, this is yet another example of a police officer getting away with needlessly shooting and killing a black man.
But the case also shows why it’s so difficult to punish cops for these shootings: According to the law, police officers only have to reasonably perceive a threat for a shooting to be justified — even if a threat isn’t actually there. Both Stockley and his partner claimed they saw a gun before they opened fire, which would be enough to legally justify a shooting under these standards.
Al Watkins, an attorney for Smith’s fiancée, Christina Wilson, urged everyone to “stay peaceful” after the verdict. But tensions remain high over racial disparities in American policing, with the court’s decision only adding fuel to the fire.