ST. LOUIS (Reuters) – A Missouri judge on Friday found a white former St. Louis police officer not guilty of murder in the shooting death of a black man, stirring feelings of anger and frustration in the black community.
The National Guard was placed on standby by Missouri Governor Eric Greitens with officials fearing the verdict could set off violent protests, as in similar incidents involving police and minorities around the United States in recent years.
Jason Stockley, 36, was acquitted of first-degree murder for killing Anthony Lamar Smith, 24. Stockley, who was arrested in May 2016 and accused of planting a gun in Smith’s car, testified he acted in self-defense.
St. Louis and state officials were braced for violent protests and racial tensions similar to those that followed the 2014 fatal shooting by police of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, near St. Louis.
“I’m sad, I’m hurt, I’m mad,” the Reverend Clinton Stancil of the Wayman AME Church in St. Louis said by telephone. “But this was expected. We haven’t made any progress since Ferguson, that’s clear. Cops can still kill us with impunity.”
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson appealed for calm.
“Frustration, anger, hurt, pain, hope and love all intermingle,” she said in a statement. I encourage St. Louisans to show each other compassion.”
Christina Wilson, Smith’s fiancée, pleaded at a news conference on Thursday evening for protesters to avoid violence if they demonstrate.
Judge Timothy Wilson’s highly anticipated ruling was announced Friday, more than five weeks after the bench trial ended.
“This court, as a trier of fact, is simply not firmly convinced of defendant’s guilt,” the judge wrote in his ruling.
Wilson said prosecutors also asked the court to consider a lesser degree of homicide but they did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley’s use of deadly force was not justified in self defense.
‘THIS AIN’T RIGHT’
In recent years grand juries have declined to charge officers involved in the shooting of Brown and the choking death of Eric Garner, 43, in New York. Baltimore police officers also were not convicted in the death of Freddie Gray, who died from a broken neck suffered in a police van in 2015.
Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., voiced his frustration after the verdict.
“You all know this ain’t right and you all continue to do this to us,” he told a St. Louis Fox television station. “Like we don’t mean nothing, like we’re rats, trash, dogs in the streets. Right now, I’m praying for my city because my people are tired of this.”
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, in a statement listed the names of several black people fatally shot by police in different cities and said little has changed.
“It is past time for Missouri and the country to say in one voice: ‘This cannot continue,'” Mittman said.
Prosecutor Kimberly Gardner said in a statement she was disappointed with the verdict and believed she had presented proof that Stockley intended to kill Smith.
“However, in this case it was the judge’s duty to evaluate the evidence and deliver his findings,” she said. “That’s how our system works.”
Smith tried to flee from Stockley on Dec. 20, 2011, following an alleged drug deal, authorities said. During the pursuit, Stockley could be heard saying on an internal police car video he was going to kill Smith, prosecutors said.
Stockley, riding in the passenger seat of a patrol vehicle with his personal AK-47 in one hand and department-issued weapon in the other, shot at Smith’s car, according to St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Susan Ryan and charging documents.
At Stockley’s direction, the driver of the police car slammed into Smith’s vehicle and they came to a stop, court documents said. Stockley then approached Smith’s car and shot him five times with his service weapon.
Stockley’s lawyers said he fired in self-defense because he believed Smith was reaching for a gun but prosecutors said the only gun recovered from the scene had only Stockley’s DNA on it.
Stockley waived his right to a jury trial, allowing the judge to decide. He left the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in 2013 and was arrested last year.
Smith’s family in 2013 settled a lawsuit filed against the city for $900,000, the family’s lawyer, Albert Watkins, said.
(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales and Chris Kenning; Editing by Bill Trott)