“The videos don’t lie” was a phrase repeated by the prosecutor, a witness and even the defense attorney during the first day of the Jason Stockley murder trial on Tuesday, August 1.
That videos of Stockley killing 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith exist and are truthful seemed mostly agreed-upon. Exactly what those videos mean, though, is fiercely contested.
Stockley, a white man who was then a St. Louis police officer, is accused of first-degree murder in the 2011 killing of Smith, a black St. Louis resident.
On Tuesday the courtroom was packed with observers – activists, cops, clergy, family members. The jury box, however, was empty: Stockley waived his right to a jury trial. St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson carries full responsibility for his fate.
Just after noon on December 20, 2011, Stockley and his partner, Officer Brian Bianchi, were on patrol near West Florissant Boulevard when they saw a man engaged in what they believed to be a hand-to-hand drug deal in the parking lot of a Church’s Chicken at Riverview and Thekla. They pulled into the parking lot to investigate.
The man, Smith, got in his car and pulled out of the parking lot, hitting the police car in the process. The two officers gave pursuit, and “Stockley fired seven shots into the fleeing vehicle,” according to a lawyer for the prosecution. He used a personal weapon, an assault rifle, which violated department policy.
In high-speed pursuit, the police cruiser struck a handicapped parking sign and a tree at the intersection of Thekla and Emerson, then continued to pursue Smith, who was in a rented silver Buick.
During the pursuit, Stockley is heard on an internal police car video saying, “Going to kill this [expletive], don’t you know it.”
As Smith’s car was slowing to a stop, Stockley is also heard telling Bianchi to “hit him right now,” at which point Bianchi slammed the police SUV into Smith’s car.
The airbags deployed. Both cars stopped. Then, within the next few minutes, Stockley got out of his car, walked to the Buick and shot Smith five times. Smith had not left the driver’s seat of his car.
“Anthony Smith did not deserve to die, but on December 20, 2011, the defendant took his life anyway and tried to cover up his crime,” said Assistant Circuit Attorney Aaron Levinson.
Levinson said that Stockley “could have stopped” at several points during his interaction with Smith. After he left the parking lot, they said, “he posed no further danger,” so Stockley could have stopped his pursuit there. Then again, after the police Tahoe crashed into a sign and a tree while pursuing Smith, the prosecution stated, Stockley could have stopped. Again and again, “a series of bad, dangerous, and deadly decisions were made that day,” Levinson said.
Prosecutors also claimed that Stockley planted a gun in the vehicle to provide a false justification for killing Smith.
The case was reopened last year by then-Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce because of unspecified “new evidence,” which may have included cell phone video taken by two men who were in a building adjacent to the scene at West Florissant and Acme. Dashcam video from the police car, and some of the cellphone video, was presented at the trial on Tuesday. The cell phone video by Antonio French (not the former alderman of that name), which captured the aftermath of the shooting, was “what the dash camera being turned off was supposed to prevent being documented,” Levinson said.
It shows Stockley approach Smith’s crashed car repeatedly. He approaches the vehicle, retreats, and on the second time, he gets in the back of the car.
None of the video shown so far, however, shows what was happening inside the car. And Stockley’s defense tells a different story.
According to the defense, Smith was “a parole absconder” who decided to make a “violent” effort not to get arrested. In backing out of the Church’s Chicken parking lot, they asserted, Smith “made every effort in getting away to strike Jason Stockley.”
“We don’t get to look at these facts in the cold light of the morning after,” a defense attorney said. “We have to see them as they were perceived at the time. This is a felon who is trying to flee.”
Stockley’s defense claimed that the shooting was reflexive: a “natural, human response,” caused by his belief that Smith, a dangerous man, was reaching for a gun in the passenger side of his car.
The prosecution, by contrast, called it “an execution,” culminating in a calculated, deliberate “kill shot” which, according to chemical evidence, was fired only about 6 inches from Smith’s body.
There is also the question of whether or not Stockley planted a gun in Smith’s car, as the prosecution claims.
Stockley was carrying multiple firearms at the time – his department-issued Beretta pistol, and his “personal” AK-47 rifle. Stockley’s possession of that rifle in his police car was a violation of policy, according to witness Officer Elijah Simpson, who arrived on the scene almost at the same time that Stockley shot Smith.
None of the witnesses so far were able to confirm or deny that there was a gun planted, though blood that might have had DNA corresponding to Stockley’s was found on the firearm in Smith’s vehicle. Also, video shows Stockley at the crime scene rummaging through a bag in the backseat of the cruiser, next to where he placed his personal firearm.
The second day of the trial mostly concerned the topic of gloves—who was wearing them, and who wasn’t. The courtroom was significantly emptier than the day before, with most of Tuesday’s spectators absent.
The defense argued that Stockley would not have planted the gun, because his fingerprints are the only ones found on it. He wasn’t wearing gloves when he handled the gun, which the defense asserted was not the action of someone trying to cover his tracks – instead, his handling of the gun found in Smith’s car was simply a necessary (and legal) action to secure the scene.
In court, the defense asked witness John Baumgartner of the police force to demonstrate the grip required to unload a pistol, which he demonstrated using the same pistol that had been found in Smith’s car that day. The witness who handled the gun, however, was asked to wear gloves.
Another topic up for debate Wednesday was whether or not a crowd gathered at the scene. Simpson, along with Stockley’s defense, described the aftermath of the shooting as “crazy.” Cell phone video by French, which shows “about 10” officers gathering in the parking lot after the shooting, contradicts that. It doesn’t show a civilian crowd at all, much less an “aggressive” one.
In the upcoming days, a DNA expert is expected to testify, along with other witnesses, possibly including Stockley himself.
The trial is expected to continue for up to two weeks.