The police said they used tear gas after protesters destroyed property and that at least two officers were injured — one seriously — when agitators threw bricks. Other damage in the Central West End of the city included shattered windows at a public library and a popular tavern.
Concerns that the outcome of the trial might set off violent protests and memories of unrest over a different police shooting in Ferguson, only a few miles away, were evident: barricades were erected near courthouses, police officers were assigned longer shifts, and Gov. Eric Greitens placed the Missouri National Guard on standby.
Within minutes after the verdict was made public, protesters gathered outside the courthouse and, for hours, marched through downtown. “The system is so obviously broken that to just sit back and be complacent is wrong,” said Kelly McBride, 31, who was among the marchers. “There is all of this evidence, and to still get a verdict of not guilty just shows how broken everything is.”
Adding to the tension over the case was how drawn out it has been. The shooting took place in 2011, although Jennifer Joyce, then the city’s top prosecutor, brought the case nearly five years later, citing new, unspecified evidence. And the trial itself ended last month, but the judge in the bench trial, Timothy Wilson, of the St. Louis Circuit, waited close to a month to announce his decision. After the verdict, several school districts in the St. Louis area announced early dismissals and canceled weekend activities.
Mr. Stockley’s acquittal is the latest example of just how challenging it is for prosecutors to pursue criminal charges against police officers for shooting civilians. In recent months, officers were acquitted in jury trials in Oklahoma, Minnesota and Wisconsin. And in Ohio, prosecutors dropped a murder case against a former University of Cincinnati officer after juries twice failed to reach a verdict.
Kimberly Gardner, the elected prosecutor for St. Louis, said in a statement after Friday’s verdict that it was “extremely difficult to prevail in court” in such cases, but that she believed “we offered sufficient evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Jason Stockley intended to kill Mr. Smith.”
“Of course, I’m disappointed with the court’s decision,” Ms. Gardner said.
Neil Bruntrager, a lawyer for Mr. Stockley, said he appreciated the judge’s verdict and that “anyone who reads it will understand that Jason Stockley did nothing illegal.” He said his client was “relieved to finally have this done.”
At the trial in August, prosecutors described Mr. Stockley as an out-of-control officer who chased Mr. Smith for three miles at speeds of more than 80 miles an hour, shot him without provocation and then planted a .38-caliber revolver in Mr. Smith’s car. The shooting was premeditated, prosecutors argued, pointing to a recording device inside the police car that had captured Mr. Stockley saying to his partner, not long before the shooting: “Going to kill this” person, he said using an expletive, “don’t you know it.”
Judge Wilson said in his ruling that people “say all kinds of things in the heat of the moment,” and that the statement “can be ambiguous depending on the context.”
The defense argued that Mr. Stockley acted reasonably in fatally shooting a suspect in a drug deal that the officer had tried to stop before the car chase took place. Defense lawyers have said that the officer believed Mr. Smith was armed, and was reaching for a gun — the weapon that was found in his car after the shooting. Mr. Smith was shot five times.
The encounter began when Officer Stockley and his partner, Brian Bianchi, driving a police S.U.V., believed that Mr. Smith was involved in a drug deal in a Church’s Chicken parking lot and attempted to approach him, the police said.
As he moved toward Mr. Smith’s car, Mr. Stockley carried his own AK-47, an unauthorized weapon, as well as his service gun.
Officer Stockley and Officer Bianchi said that they saw Mr. Smith holding a handgun. As Mr. Smith sped away in his Buick, Mr. Stockley fired seven shots with his service weapon.
The second, fatal confrontation occurred not far away, a short time later.
In his verdict, delivered in a 30-page written order, Judge Wilson said he was “simply not firmly convinced of defendant’s guilt,” adding later: “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 defendant did not act in self-defense.”
Judge Wilson also expressed doubts about the prosecution’s claim that a gun was planted on Mr. Smith, writing “that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.”
On social media, some zeroed in on that statement, calling it clear proof of bias by the judge, while others pointed to the verdict as a sign of broad failings of the justice system.
Mr. Stockley, who is in his mid-30s, resigned from the St. Louis police department in 2013. Before joining the police force, he served in the Army and did a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq.
The killing resulted in a wrongful-death settlement of $900,000, brought on behalf of Mr. Smith’s young daughter.
The case has been closely watched in St. Louis and city leaders, while preparing for unrest in reaction to the verdict, have pleaded for calm.
Ms. Krewson, who took office in April, has urged St. Louis residents to remain peaceful. After the verdict, she said in a statement that she was “appalled at what happened to Anthony Lamar Smith” and “sobered by this outcome.”
Mr. Greitens, the governor, and Mr. Smith’s fiancée, Christina Wilson, spoke together in St. Louis on Thursday night and asked that any protests after the verdict remain nonviolent.
“If you feel like you want to speak out, speak how you feel and whatever comes to you — just do it in a peaceful way,” Ms. Wilson said.
Mr. Greitens, a first-term Republican who has criticized his predecessor’s handling of the unrest in Ferguson, said he hoped demonstrators would honor Ms. Wilson’s request.
Three years ago, the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, set off protests over police conduct and the treatment of black residents and led to a Justice Department investigation that found Ferguson had engaged in constitutional violations and needed to overhaul its criminal justice system. Mr. Wilson was not charged. Protests that followed the shooting in August of 2014 and a grand jury decision not to indict Mr. Wilson later that year grew tense, and, at times, violent.
Continue reading the main story