My immediate reaction after seeing the verdict and reading the judgment in the murder trial of Jason Stockley was to be appalled and disgusted, and struck by a sense of depression over how predictable this outcome was - how we've seen it before - although this time the black box of the jury was broken open and we could see the machinations of Judge Tim Wilson's intent to ignore and diminish Jason Stockley's actions, to disregard DNA evidence and Stockely's own words and contort them into a not guilty verdict.
Several days of reflection have not diminished any of those feelings. What I believe the broader public in St. Louis would like to hear is an admission from the acting Police Chief that there was overwhelming evidence presented at trial that Jason Stockley planted a gun in Anthony Lamar Smith's car after killing him, in an attempt to justify the killing. Only Jason Stockley's DNA was on the gun - including, as presented at trial - in places where you could only deposit DNA by disassembling the gun. On the other hand, the victim's DNA wasn't there, even after being shot and bleeding all over the inside of the car where the gun was supposed to have been. While the judge dismissed this as inconclusive and irrelevant, it bears stating what everyone knows: Jason Stockley almost certainly planted that gun. Its the only explanation that is consistent with the evidence, which doesn't require flights of fancy to believe. The simplest explanation here, consistent with all the evidence, is the one we should believe.
People expect police officers to be given the benefit of the doubt in many situations, and they are. But everything needs to have a limit. What residents should know is that prosecutors are loathe to prosecute police officers for crimes. And two St. Louis prosecutors, Jennifer Joyce and Kim Gardner, pursued charges of first degree murder against Jason Stockley, because it was a case they could not ignore. Prosecutors do not charge police officers unless they are compelled by evidence to do so. Prosecuting a police officer is difficult, time consuming, politically unpopular, and unlikely to result in a conviction. The reality is prosecutors do not pursue charges without compelling evidence of guilt. These are not fishing expeditions. When a judge ignores evidence at a trial, and injects thinly coded racist language into the verdict, what else can we conclude but that the latent racism of our country prevented a just and fair verdict?
Despite the verdict, we still cannot ignore what in all probability happened. A police officer, who was already in violation of a number of important police procedures, including carrying and brandishing his own assault rifle during this interaction, planted a gun on a suspect after saying he would kill him, killed him 45 seconds later, and a judge ignored that in his verdict. The evidence was such that even other, current St. Louis police officers were calling for the conviction of Stockley after evidence presented at trial.
None of this is to defend the actions of Smith that day. But we know that he would have faced serious consequences within the judicial system after being arrested. The system would have vigorously brought charges against him for his dangerous actions.
The reality of the criminal justice system in general is that most people do not expect perfection. Police are going to get cut some breaks and society accepts that. But the same reality is that the justice system has to be able to convict police in egregious situations like this. People do not need to believe that justice will be automatic, but we do need to believe that it is a possibility - that in cases with clear evidence of criminal acts, witnesses, DNA evidence, video, that in these circumstances police are not above the law.
The irony of this verdict is it only makes policing harder. Jason Stockley is long gone from St. Louis and is no longer a police officer. But police here today face more anger and skepticism because of his actions. They face less support, less trust, less regard, and that makes all residents less safe. A few writers at the Post Dispatch may be oblivious to what protestors are talking about, but its painfully obvious: residents want a system where egregious criminal activity by a police officer can successfully prosecuted. Its not an abstract concept.
We can't prosecute Jason Stockley again. What can we do? We're about to hire a new police chief, this is our first chance to hire a person who has substantial experience outside the St. Louis Police Dept. We need to hire a person who can at least acknowledge the reality of cases like the Stockley case. We need someone concerned with effective and fair policing over public relations, with the ability to strengthen the police department by acknowledging when the wrong things happen, and with the desire to prevent what happened in the Stockley case from happening again. As is so often said, you can't fix the problem until you acknowledge it. I hear the overwhelming chorus of residents acknowledging it. Will the next police chief? The next judge? Doing better is the only option.