Judge’s ruling to exonerate ex-St. Louis cop who killed Anthony Lamar Smith has some odd language

Judge Timothy Wilson's ruling raises questions.

In this Aug. 28, 2017, photo, activists gather outside the St. Louis courthouse where former police officer Jason Stockley's murder trial was heard. (AP Photo/Jim Salter)
In this Aug. 28, 2017, photo, activists gather outside the St. Louis courthouse where former police officer Jason Stockley's murder trial was heard. (AP Photo/Jim Salter)

The cop who killed Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011 will walk free after a judge in St. Louis found him innocent of first-degree murder on Friday, despite evidence prosecutors say proves that former city officer Jason Stockley shot Smith from inches away and then planted a revolver in his hand to justify the killing.

Stockley’s acquittal comes more than four years after his old bosses with the city police department came down the other way on Smith’s death. The city gave Smith’s family $900,000 in 2013 to settle a wrongful death suit filed on behalf of the dead man’s young daughter. Stockley is at least the fifth police officer exonerated from on-duty homicide charges this year, though the six-year-old case received far less national attention than trials in Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and TK stemming from more recent police killings.

Stockley killed Smith a little after noon on December 20, 2011, following a high-speed car chase through city streets. Officers believed they had seen Smith selling drugs in the parking lot of a fast food chain store on the north side of the city. Stockley fired his service pistol seven times at Smith’s car as it sped away from the parking lot, according to prosecutors. Stockley also brandished a personal weapon — an AK-47 — but did not fire it during the chase.

Video recorded inside the squad car Stockley and partner Brian Bianchi were driving that day capture Stockley saying he was “going to kill this motherfucker,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Smith was struck with multiple shots. But the fatal one was fired from inches away from his torso, after Stockley and Bianchi had caught up to him several blocks away and rear-ended his sedan. Stockley fired five more times at close range. Four bullet casings were recovered on the ground near the sedan, and a fifth was found inside the driver’s side seat well.

Initially, investigators determined that Stockley and Bianchi could not be charged in Smith’s death. But years later, forensic evidence indicating that only Stockley’s DNA was present on the handgun officers claimed Smith had wielded led prosecutors to change their tune. Stockley’s lawyers say the officer’s DNA was on the gun because he unloaded it after Smith was dead as a precaution. Prosecutors note that DNA was found underneath the head of a screw that holds the handle of the gun together, and that the officer had not been injured in the chase — “suggesting the DNA from the gun could have been there beforehand,” as the Post-Dispatch summarized. Police also found a bag of heroin in Smith’s car that had the dead man’s DNA on it.

Stockley was also allowed to move freely between his squad car and Smith’s vehicle, and to climb inside of it, as other officers managed a growing crowd at the scene after the killing. That is unusual in police shootings, where the officer who fired fatal shots is typically kept away from the scene so that other officers can conduct a thorough investigation of both the victim and their colleague’s actions on the day. (Dashboard camera video of Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez’s killing of Philando Castile last summer, for example, shows officers swiftly pulling Yanez away from Castile’s car and urging him to go home as he alternates between shouting and sobbing.)

Unlike this year’s other acquittals of officers who killed civilians in suspicious circumstances, Stockley’s guilt or innocence was decided by a single judge rather than a civilian jury. Judge Timothy Wilson, a former prosecutor with two decades on the bench who reportedly intends to retire at the end of this year, decided prosecutors had failed to prove their case.

Wilson’s ruling bears some odd tics of language. He goes out of his way to note that Smith’s car “did not ‘gently strike’ the police vehicle,” then describes the officer’s conclusive ramming to end the chase as the car being “bumped from behind by the police vehicle.” He mentions Stockley’s comment about killing Smith during the chase, but expounds in a footnote that “the context is not clear from the recording.”

Wilson uses the passive voice to describe the unloading of the .38 revolver prosecutors suggested might have been Stockley’s rather than Smith’s, eliding the key question of who touched it when. He dismisses the idea that Stockley retrieved a throw-down piece to plant in the car, describing what videos from the scene show. “The video does not show defendant trying to stealthily recover a revolver and conceal it on his person,” he writes, after acknowledging Stockley’s hands are not visible in some moments of the video. Bystander video from a cell phone shows “there is no bulge from a gun in any pocket” of Stockley’s uniform, in Wilson’s judgment.

But Wilson saves his most abject moment of deference to the police narrative of Smith’s death for the conclusion of his dismissal of the prosecution’s evidence.

“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,” Wilson wrote.