The acquittal on Friday of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley of first-degree murder charges in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith was all too familiar. Like in other cases, the local community took to the streets in mass protests soon after a white officer was found not guilty of murdering a black motorist. And like in other cases, it showed how difficult it is to hold police accountable in shooting deaths of black men, no matter what the evidence.
It was unusual in one big way, though. Because the verdict was decided by a judge after Stockley waived his right to a jury trial, the public got a rare insight into the thinking that goes into letting a cop go free despite stacks of evidence of wrongdoing. In Judge Timothy J. Wilson’s 30-page ruling you can see the mental gymnastics that went into acquitting a man who said to his partner of Smith, “we’re killing this motherfucker, don’t you know,” minutes before killing him.
There are many embarrassing parts of this verdict. Let’s start, though, with the particularly shameful portion that seeks to vindicate Stockley for this audio-recorded statement of apparent premeditation. During his own testimony, Stockley stated that he couldn’t remember making the “we’re killing this motherfucker” remark, but justified it by saying that “during a vehicle pursuit, there are many things that are said.” He added that “it’s hard for me to elaborate even what the context was, because I don’t even know.”
This dissembling answer was apparently enough for the judge to discount this clear statement of intent. Here’s what Wilson wrote:
People say all kinds of things in the heat of the moment or while in stressful situations, and whether Stockley’s statement that “we’re killing this motherfucker,” which can be ambiguous depending on the context, constituted a real threat of action or was a means of releasing tension has to be judged by his subsequent conduct. The court does not believe Stockley’s conduct immediately following the end of the pursuit is consistent with the conduct of a person intentionally killing another person unlawfully.
Stockley’s conduct immediately after making that statement was to instruct his partner to ram Smith’s vehicle, approach Smith's car, and almost immediately fire five shots into Smith’s body, including one that forensic analysts described as a “kill shot” likely fired within six inches of Smith. In his ruling, Wilson characterized this as a long period of time and accepted as fact the defense's argument that all five shots were fired at once (the prosecution argued that a final "kill shot" was fired a bit after the first four):
It was not until fifteen seconds after Stockley arrived at the driver’s side door, that he unholstered his service revolver and fired several shots in succession.
As damning as it was, Stockley’s statement was not the only piece of evidence against him. Prosecutors alleged that he planted a gun that was found in Smith’s car. The evidence for this is that his DNA was found on the gun while Smith’s was not, he can be seen rifling through a bag in his police vehicle after the shooting, and he was seen returning to search Smith’s car before the gun appeared to him. Stockley testified that his partner warned him that Smith—who had twice rammed the police vehicle and clipped Stockley with his car as he fled when the officers first approached him after what they suspected was a drug buy—had a gun. In his ruling, Judge Wilson took this testimony by the defendant as fact:
Stockley had been warned by [his partner Brian] Bianchi that Smith had a gun.
One of Stockley’s fellow officers at the time who arrived on the scene immediately after the shooting, Elijah Simpson, had testified that he didn’t see a gun in the vehicle when he lifted up the airbag and looked in the car. Simpson also testified that it was strange that Stockley was allowed to go back and forth between his own car and the scene of the shooting, and that Stockley was the only officer to remove his gloves during evidence gathering. (This was how Stockley's defense team says the gun was contaminated with his DNA. The prosecution says he removed the gloves on purpose to have that excuse.) This testimony from a fellow officer was not enough for Wilson, because Simpson didn’t directly see Stockley actually physically plant the gun:
There were several officers standing around adjacent to the driver’s side of the Buick and not one of them was called to testify that they saw Stockley plant a gun in the Buick.
Stockley testified that he had actually gone into the bag in his vehicle to get QuikClot wound dressing from the car and administer it to Smith, but decided against it because “it was futile.” Simpson testified that no one attempted to help Smith even though “he appeared alive.”
Wilson brushes all this off by saying that no extra gun can be seen on Stockley’s person in the blurry cellphone camera footage of the incident that was the main relevant video evidence remaining after one of the officers involved turned off the police vehicle’s dashboard camera. From Wilson:
Stockley was not wearing a jacket; if he had such a gun in his possession it would have been visible on the cell phone video. The gun was too large to fit entirely within any of the pockets on the pants he was wearing, there was no bulge in any pocket indicating a gun within the pocket, and the gun would have been visible if it was tucked into his belt.
It’s inconceivable to Wilson that the gun was not visible in the limited available cellphone footage, or hidden elsewhere on Stockley’s person than one of the places he enumerates.
Finally, Wilson says that he cannot think of a motive Stockley might have had to “kill this motherfucker,” even though Smith had just clipped Stockley with his car. (Stockley was carrying a personal AK-47 at the time, a violation of department policies.)
These are not the only examples of Judge Wilson bending over backward to find validation for Stockley’s threatening words and repeated violations of department procedure in this killing of a man who another officer had found appearing to be unarmed. But they are the most egregious.
If there is one new lesson in this whole tragic episode, it’s this little bit of insight into the flawed logic, acceptance of hearsay as fact, and ugly ex post facto justifications that go into exonerating white men in uniform when there’s evidence that they have assassinated black motorists.