Hundreds of people protesting the acquittal of a white former St. Louis police officer in the fatal shooting of black man several years ago marched for hours in mostly peaceful demonstrations, until a broken window at the mayor’s home and escalating tensions led riot police to lob tear gas to disperse the crowds.
For weeks, activists had been threatening civil disobedience if Jason Stockley were not convicted of murder for killing Anthony Lamar Smith, prompting authorities to take precautions. With the large protests that followed the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson still fresh in everyone’s minds, barricades were erected around police headquarters and the courthouse, among other sites, in anticipation of the verdict.
Within hours of St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson acquitting Stockley of first-degree murder, a racially diverse crowd of protesters took to the streets — some legally carrying weapons and others toting children and waving posters.
More than 20 arrests were made by early evening, and some protesters were pepper-sprayed during confrontations with authorities. St. Louis police reported that 10 officers had suffered injuries by the end of the night, including a broken jaw and dislocated shoulder, and some journalists reported being threatened by protesters.
Activists said they would meet again Saturday to plan further demonstrations.
The 2011 confrontation began when Stockley and his partner tried to arrest Smith for a suspected drug deal in a fast-food restaurant. Smith sped off, leading to a chase that ended when he crashed.
At the trial, Stockley testified that he saw the 24-year-old Smith holding a silver revolver as he sped away at the start of the chase. He said when he shot Smith, he felt he was in imminent danger.
Prosecutors said Stockley planted a gun in Smith’s car after the shooting — Stockley’s DNA was on the weapon but Smith’s wasn’t.
Dashcam video from Stockley’s police car captured him saying he was “going to kill this (expletive), don’t you know it.” Less than a minute later, he shot Smith five times.
Stockley’s lawyer dismissed the comment as “human emotions” uttered during a dangerous pursuit.
In his decision, Wilson wrote that the statement “can be ambiguous depending on the context.”
“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,” the judge wrote.
In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the verdict, Stockley, 36, said he understands how video of the shooting looks bad, but that he did nothing wrong.
“I can feel for and I understand what the family is going through, and I know everyone wants someone to blame, but I’m just not the guy,” said Stockley, who left St. Louis’ police force in 2013 and moved to Houston.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner acknowledged the difficulty of winning police shooting cases but said prosecutors believe they proved that Stockley intended to kill Smith.
Friday’s protests began with largely unsuccessful efforts at civil disobedience. Demonstrators were blocked on an entrance ramp before they could rush onto an interstate, and found the city’s convention center’s doors locked when they tried to enter.
Early confrontations erupted when protesters blocked a bus full of officers in riot gear and later surrounded a police vehicle that was damaged with rocks, prompting police to deploy pepper spray. A freelance Associated Press videographer said a protester threw his camera to the ground and damaged it, and he was later threatened with a beating if he didn’t put another camera away. A KTVI reporter said water bottles were thrown at him after a protester taunted him, drawing a crowd.
As night fell, hundreds of demonstrators walked through the streets to the upscale Central West End section of the city, where they chanted and marched as people looked on from restaurants and hospital windows lining busy Kingshighway.
Tensions escalated after protesters broke a front window and splattered red paint on the home of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who had called for calm ahead of the verdict and later said she was appalled by what happened to Smith and “sobered” by the outcome.
Police in bulletproof vests and helmets closed in and demanded protesters get off the lawn and the street in front of the house, eventually using tear gas to clear the area over the next two hours.
Smith’s death is just one of several high-profile U.S. cases in recent years in which a white officer killed a black suspect, including the killing of Brown in Ferguson. The officer who killed the unarmed 18-year-old wasn’t charged and eventually resigned.
Summer Ballentine contributed to this report
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