JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri politicians and statewide officials are calling for peace following the verdict in the trial of a former St. Louis police officer who had been accused of murder.
Jason Stockley, a white police officer, had been charged with killing Anthony Smith, a black suspect who was shot and killed following a 2011 high-speed pursuit and crash.
On Friday morning, St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson’s verdict came out, revealing Stockley had been found not guilty of the charges first-degree murder and armed criminal action.
“The defense does not deny that Stockley shot and killed Smith. Rather, the defense contends that Stockley acted in self-defense and that Stockley’s use of deadly force, as a police officer, was justified because Smith was armed with a handgun, and had demonstrated he was a danger to other persons by the manner in which he fled from the police at high speed and Stockley did not shoot Smith until Smith reached for his gun.” (Read the full verdict here, courtesy of KMOX.)
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner released a statement Friday morning saying, “I’m disappointed with the court’s finding. I know there are better ways we can do this if we join together to make the system work for us all.”
“Mr. Smith’s family has already lost their loved one to violence and now they are being denied justice. If police can announce they are going to murder, carry personal AK-47s, plant weapons, and shoot unarmed people 5 times at close range with no consequences, no black man in America is safe,” said Thomas Harvey, Executive Director of Arch City Defenders. “Police and courts in this region and across America have to accept that racism influences police actions and the court’s protection of those actions. This verdict shows that there has been no change. There can be no trust without accountability.”
The case itself had reignited racial tensions that had not been seen at this magnitude since the events in Ferguson following the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown. Protesters, activists, and members of the city’s black clergy had pledged protests prior to the verdict. They argue police can act with “absolute impunity” due to an environment that reinforces a message that law enforcement can use fatal and excessive force against communities of color and then turn to Missouri’s courts for protection.
Governor Eric Greitens has sought to be proactive in his administration’s handling of whatever reaction the verdict may bring from the community, asking the National Guard to prepare to be activated and deployed to the region if needed.
The Governor also met with members of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus prior to the release of the verdict on Wednesday, discussing the case.
“I had a very good meeting with the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus to discuss how, together, we can do different in Missouri and ensure that any protest that may follow the verdict in the case of Officer Jason Stockley will remain peaceful and not turn violent,” Governor Eric Greitens said an issued statement. “As Governor, I am committed to protecting every citizen’s constitutional right to protest peacefully, while also protecting people’s lives, homes, and communities. I’m grateful to the many leaders who have stepped forward to work together, and I look forward to continuing to work closely with them.”
A statement from the caucus says the meeting was productive.
“We know this verdict has the potential to upset and hurt many people. We are committed to working together to do differently in the state of Missouri, and to that end, we urge any reaction to this verdict -whatever the verdict may be- to remain non-violent. We hope that the police response will help to diffuse tensions rather than escalate them,” the statement read.
“We may have different opinions on policy, but we are united in the belief that any protest must also protect people and property. We also share the belief that the appropriate role of law enforcement is to protect the rights of all Missourians to non-violently protest, while also protecting the community against those who seek to perpetrate violence. The Missouri Legislative Black Caucus looks forward to working together with the Governor and all Missourians to seek equal justice under the law for every citizen of Missouri.”
The night before the issued verdict, Gov. Greitens headed to St. Louis, where he and Smith’s fiancee, Christina Wilson, issued a call for peace.
Wilson asked for peace on behalf of Smith’s loved ones regardless of the decision.
“If you feel like you want to speak out, speak how you feel and whatever comes to you,” Wilson said. “Just do it in a peaceful way.”
“Whatever the verdict is, we will protect every single person’s right to peacefully protest,” Greitens said. “And whatever the verdict is, we will also protect people’s lives, their homes, and our communities.”
As of Friday morning, some protests have begun to take place in the streets, as outraged protesters said that if they “can’t get justice, you can’t have peace.”
Later in the morning, lawmakers and elected officials released the following statements:
“We know this verdict causes pain for many people. We have been in touch with city and county officials, and the State of Missouri will continue to assist them,” Gov. Eric Greitens stated. “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.”
“The First Amendment guarantees the right of every American to peaceably assemble and express their views and their grievances. I encourage protestors to demonstrate peacefully, mindful of their safety and the safety of others. I know our law enforcement will work to keep them safe,” Attorney General Josh Hawley said.
“My thoughts and prayers are with the family of Anthony Lamar Smith, as today’s verdict fails to provide the justice they sought and the closure they seek,” Sen. Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, said. “Our city is hurting, our citizens are searching for answers, and people are justifiably angry. We must remain committed to protecting every citizen’s constitutional right to protest publicly without interference and acknowledge that while protests do not have to be polite, anger must not give way to violence, and destruction must not replace dialogue. After all, peace can only be achieved by the peaceful, and I know the people of St. Louis are ready to lead the way.”
“As we have now learned of the not-guilty verdict in the Jason Stockley murder trial, we must have faith in the belief that we have an opportunity to come out of this better and stronger. We must allow and respect the catharsis that is to be expected from a community that has long-anticipated this outcome yet, we must also understand that violence and destruction are not constructive catalysts of positive change. Ultimately, we must hold fast to the belief that we have a chance to unite in a common goal of achieving true social justice that promotes and protects the dignity of all and work to enact to policies that advance substantive change: access to health care, quality education, good-paying jobs, safe and affordable housing, and prosperity for all,” Rep. Cora Faith Walker, D-Ferguson, said. “I recognize the difficulties of addressing the systemic issues we face as a society and transforming the institutions that have perpetuated these issues. Yet, the courage of those on the front lines exercising one of the most fundamental tenets in our Democracy in pursuit of a more equitable and just society and the courage of those who truly serve our community and protect and uphold our Constitution, exemplifies our capacity if we have the courage to come together, commit to confronting our challenges, and concentrate our energies on making our region, our state, our country and our world, a better place for our children and for future generations to come.”
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.