ST. LOUIS – Hundreds of protesters poured into St. Louis streets on Friday, and some scuffles erupted, after a Missouri judge acquitted a former white police officer who was charged with murder in the 2011 fatal shooting of a black man.
With the National Guard on standby in case of violence, authorities appealed to demonstrators to remain peaceful as they protested the outcome of a case reminiscent of circumstances that spawned racially charged unrest in the nearby suburb of Ferguson and gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014.
Police said several protesters threw rocks and water bottles, while officers were seen in video footage and by eyewitnesses dousing at least five people with pepper spray about a block from the courthouse.
As night fell, police reported making 13 arrests and said four officers had been assaulted. One group of demonstrators tried to enter Interstate 40 but was blocked by police officers in riot gear.
Former city policeman Jason Stockley, 36, was found not guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, 24, in a verdict rendered by a judge five weeks after the end of a nonjury trial. Stockley said Smith fled in his car when the officer tried to arrest him on drug charges.
Stockley and his partner chased Smith, who was shot five times in his car. The former policeman believed Smith was armed, defense attorneys said. A gun was found in the car, but prosecutors argued Stockley planted the weapon and that gun had only Stockley’s DNA on it.
Following the verdict, some 600 protesters marched through downtown St. Louis, chanting “No justice, no peace” and “Hey hey! Ho ho! These killer cops have got to go!”
Some protesters held signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “No more racist killer cops.”
Later in the evening, a group of about 300 protesters moved from the courthouse to the city’s popular restaurant neighborhood, the Central West End.
“I’m sad, I’m hurt, I’m mad,” the Reverend Clinton Stancil of the Wayman AME Church in St. Louis said by telephone. “We haven’t made any progress since Ferguson, that’s clear. Cops can still kill us with impunity.”
Stockley’s attorney, Neil Bruntrager, said the ex-officer on Friday was relieved and would seek to rebuild his life. “It’s been a long road for him,” Bruntrager said.
In his ruling, Judge Timothy Wilson said the state had failed to prove a charge of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, or even a lesser charge such as involuntary manslaughter.
The judge also said he doubted the prosecution’s claim the gun was planted, writing: “Finally, the court observes, based on its nearly 30 years on the bench, that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.” Smith’s DNA was on a bag that contained heroin found in his car.
The comment sparked outrage by protesters on the street and on social media.
Murder convictions against law enforcement officers are rare. In recent years grand juries have declined to even charge officers involved in the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, which triggered waves of violent protests in Ferguson, and in the choking death of Eric Garner, 43, in New York. Baltimore police officers were acquitted in the case of Freddie Gray, who died from a broken neck suffered while handcuffed in a police van in 2015.
Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., voiced his frustration after Friday’s verdict.
“You all know this ain’t right and you all continue to do this to us,” he told a St. Louis Fox television station. “Like we don’t mean nothing, like we’re rats, trash, dogs in the streets. Right now, I’m praying for my city because my people are tired of this.”
St. Louis prosecutor Kimberly Gardner said she was disappointed with the verdict and called on protesters to avoid violence.
“I understand the verdict has created anger and frustration for many in our community,” she told reporters at the courthouse. “I am frustrated as well. Destruction of our community is not the answer.”
Smith tried to flee from Stockley on Dec. 20, 2011, following an alleged drug deal, authorities said. During the pursuit, Stockley could be heard saying on an internal police car video he was going to kill Smith, prosecutors said.
At Stockley’s direction, the driver of the police car slammed into Smith’s vehicle and they came to a stop, court documents said. Stockley then approached Smith’s car and shot him five times with his service weapon.
Stockley waived his right to a jury trial, allowing the judge to decide. He left the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in 2013 and was arrested last year.
Smith’s family settled a lawsuit against the city for $900,000 in 2013, Watkins said.