The acquittal Friday of a former St. Louis police officer, who is white, in the killing of a black man sparked protests in the city, and several large businesses — including Wells Fargo — chose to close early.
Missouri Circuit Court Judge Timothy Wilson found Jason Stockley not guilty of first-degree murder in a 30-page decision that outlined the December 2011 incident, which began in the parking lot of a Church’s Fried Chicken when the officer and his partner approached Anthony Lamar Smith in his car.
Smith, a 24-year-old suspected drug dealer, fled. He crashed into the police car as he drove away, leading officers on a three-minute chase at speeds of up to nearly 90 mph. When both cars came to a stop, Stockley fired into Smith’s car and killed him.
Stockley has maintained that he was shooting in self-defense because he believed Smith was armed. A gun was discovered in Smith’s car, but prosecutors argued that the officers had put it there.
In his ruling, Wilson said the court had “agonizingly” gone over the evidence “again and again,” concluding that the state hadn’t proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley was guilty of murder.
“No one promised a rose garden, and this surely is not one," the judge wrote. “The requirement that the state meet its burden of proof is not a mere ‘technicality’ and the … case is not decided on a technicality.”
By midmorning Friday, protesters had gathered and were marching east along Washington Avenue from 14th Street. Local news reports said the Missouri National Guard had been deployed to the city.
The protest remained peaceful for much of the day, but in the afternoon St. Louis police reported that protesters had smashed the window of a patrol car, four officers had been assaulted and 13 people had been arrested.
“For the most part, demonstrations have been peaceful,” the police department tweeted.
Anger over the verdict stemmed in part from a statement that Stockley made while pursuing Smith. “We’re killing this” person, he said, using an expletive, “don’t you know.”
Prosecutors argued that the statement, which was recorded by a dashboard camera, showed that the officer intended to kill. But Wilson disagreed.
“People say all kinds of things in the heat of the moment or while in stressful situations,” he wrote, ruling that it was unclear whether the statement “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.”
Wilson also didn’t accept the state’s contention that Stockley had planted a weapon on Wilson, noting that the gun was too big to not be seen by cameras that had recorded the incident.
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, issued a statement shortly after the verdict condemning the decision.
“Anthony Lamar Smith died unnecessarily, another casualty of excessive and deadly force by police against people of color,” he said. “We extend our sympathies to Mr. Smith’s family and loved ones. This region — and our country as a whole — have seen too many deaths caused by police, with little accountability for the officers or department involved.”
Kimberly Gardner, one of the prosecutors, said in a statement that she was disappointed with the judge's decision.
“While officer-involved cases are extremely difficult to prevail in court, I believe we offered sufficient evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Jason Stockley intended to kill Mr. Smith,” she said.
The case has been closely watched by advocacy groups across the country tracking incidents of black men killed by police, including the high-profile shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, three years ago.
Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was unarmed at the time he was shot by Officer Darren Wilson. The shooting led to violent protests and became a rallying point for social justice groups.
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens urged calm Friday after the judge issued his ruling.
“We know this verdict causes pain for many people,” he said in a statement. “… I'm committed to protecting everyone's constitutional right to protest peacefully, while also protecting people's lives, homes and communities. For anyone who protests, please do so peacefully.”
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson was critical of the judge’s decision, even as she urged for calm.
“I am appalled at what happened to Anthony Lamar Smith,” she said. “I am sobered by this outcome. Frustration, anger, hurt, pain, hope and love all intermingle. I encourage St. Louisans to show each other compassion, to recognize that we all have different experiences and backgrounds and that we all come to this with real feelings and experiences.”
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the mayor’s comment didn’t sit well with Stockley's attorney, Neil Bruntrager.
"How do you promote all those things by creating distrust in a system that clearly worked under these circumstances?" Bruntrager said. "It is irresponsible and a disservice to the community to make statements like that. It's an insult to Judge Wilson to make statements like that. And it falsely encourages the belief that an injustice was done here when in fact justice was done."
3:55 p.m.: This article has been updated with information about the protests, reaction to the verdict and background about the case.
This article was originally published at 7:55 a.m.