ST. LOUIS (AP) - A judge acquitted a white former St. Louis police officer Friday in the death of a black man who was fatally shot following a high-speed chase in 2011.
The acquittal of Jason Stockley in the death of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith came amid concerns of significant unrest, but St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson wrote that he was bound by the Code of Judicial Conduct to not be swayed by "partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism." About 100 protesters were marching in downtown St. Louis within hours of the verdict being released.
Stockley, who shot Smith five times, was charged with first-degree murder. The officer said he saw Smith holding a gun and felt he was in imminent danger, but prosecutors said Stockley planted a gun in Smith's car after he shot him.
"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 the defendant did not act in self-defense," Wilson wrote.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said she was disappointed.
"While officer-involved shooting 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," Gardner said in a written statement.
Assistant Circuit Attorney Robert Steele emphasized during the trial last month that police dashcam video of the chase captured Stockley saying he was "going to kill this (expletive), don't you know it." Less than a minute later, the officer fatally shot Smith. Stockley's lawyer dismissed the comment as "human emotions" amid a dangerous police pursuit.
Stockley, 36, could have been sentenced to up to life in prison without parole. He left St. Louis' police force in 2013 and moved to Houston.
It is unusual for officers to be charged with killing suspects while on duty, and few officers have been convicted in such deaths. Stockley requested that the case be heard by a judge rather than a jury despite objections from prosecutors.
Ahead of the verdict, activists in St. Louis threatened civil disobedience if Stockley were acquitted, including possible efforts to shut down highways. Amid the growing uneasiness, the mayor and an attorney for Smith's fiance called for calm. Gov. Eric Greitens met with and assured black faith leaders that peaceful protesters' rights would be protected, but later stressed that violence wouldn't be tolerated.
Barricades went up on Aug. 28 around police headquarters, the courthouse where the trial was held, and other sites of recent or potential protests. Police said they were being proactive to ensure safety "due to recent events around the country."
The St. Louis area has a history of unrest in such cases, including after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. Protests, some of them violent, erupted after the black 18-year-old, who was unarmed, was killed by a white police officer. The officer wasn't charged but later resigned.
In Smith's case, the encounter began when Stockley and his partner tried to corner Smith in a fast-food restaurant parking lot after seeing what appeared to be a drug deal. Stockley testified that he saw what he believed was a gun, and his partner yelled "gun!" as Smith backed into the police SUV twice to get away.
Stockley's attorney, Neil Bruntrager, argued that Smith, a parole violator with previous convictions for gun and drug crimes, tried to run over the two officers. Stockley fired seven shots as Smith sped away. A chase ensued.
At the end of the chase, Stockley opened fire only when Smith, still in his car, refused commands to put up his hands and reached along the seat "in the area where the gun was," Bruntrager said. Stockley said he climbed into Smith's car and found a revolver stuffed between the center console and passenger seat.
But prosecutors questioned why Stockley dug into a bag in the back seat of the police SUV before returning to Smith's car.
The gun found in Smith's car didn't have his DNA on it, but it did have Stockley's.
"The gun was a plant," Steele said.
The case was among several in recent years in which a white officer killed a black suspect. Officers were acquitted in recent police shooting trials in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. A case in Ohio twice ended with hung juries, and prosecutors have decided not to seek a third trial.