Former St. Louis Police Officer Jason Stockley is the latest in the revolving door of cops who walk free after being charged with murder, manslaughter, reckless endangerment and an array of other crimes. In a disproportionate number of these cases, the victims are mostly young, unarmed African American or Hispanic males. The names of the most recent victims are by now familiar: Samuel DuBose, Sylville Smith, Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher — four black men slain by police in three cities at four different times. Now with Stockley’s acquittal by a judge we can add the name of Anthony Lamar Smith to this grim list.
The circumstances in the five cases have much in common. The killings came after stops were made by the officers involved. Secondly, the men apparently posed no physical threat to the officers. Two were shot while running away. Three were shot while in their cars. Smith was one of them. The other thing they have in common, and the reason why the state even goes through the motions of filing charges, is that the killings are caught on video. There was one slight departure from the script in the Smith killing, however. Stockley was acquitted by a judge, not a jury, which is an important distinction.
In the Smith case, St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson, who acquitted former Officer Stockley, gave a revealing glimpse into the incredibly high bar set for convicting cops in deadly force cases. Wilson, a former federal prosecutor, noted that Smith was a drug dealer and that a bag of heroin was found in his car. He then leapt from that to make the startling claim that it’s not entirely unlikely that a drug dealer would be armed. From that ruling came the implication that Smith, 24, had a gun and was likely to use it. Therefore, these presumptions supported Stockley’s claim that he feared for his life and shot Smith in self-defense. It made no difference that there was not a trace of Smith’s DNA on the gun that he was alleged to have. The judge quickly waved away the charge that Stockley planted a gun and the videotape that showed suspicious behavior by Stockley as “inconclusive.”
The major elements that set the bar for conviction at such an impossible height were on glaring display in the Stockley trial: a poor black male, a criminal history, a video that can be skewed any number of ways, and a gun. That’s just the starting point.
Smith was killed on Dec. 20, 2011. That’s a nearly six-year lag, during which memories fade, public outrage and protests have long ended, and the accused officers have had sufficient time to tailor and perfect their versions of why they resorted to deadly force. They also are represented by attorneys courtesy of, and paid for by, police unions. These attorneys are among the best in the trial business with lots of experience defending police officers accused of misconduct. The officers are immediately bailed out and they serve no actual pre-trial jail time. They make motions for a change of venue or ask for a bench trial. The legal ploy worked with Stockley. He got a judge and an acquittal. The presumption is that a judge is much more likely to believe the testimony of police and police defense witnesses than black witnesses, defendants, or even the victims.
The ultimate ace card for police officers who use deadly force is the 1985 Supreme Court decision that police departments can make up their own rules about when a suspect poses a threat to an officer. It comes down to a judgment call by the officer. The time-tested standard that is virtually encoded into law is that “I feared for my life.” This will be stated, massaged and repeated in every conceivable way by defense attorneys during their presentation. They’ll bolster that by painting a vivid and fearful picture of the victim as violent and aggressive. The message is that the use of deadly force was both necessary and justified.
There’s another major impediment to getting convictions. That’s the prosecutors themselves. The rare times they prosecute officers in deadly force cases, they often overcharge, present far less than a vigorous prosecution, and allow the clock to run when officers are brought to trial. This all works to the officer’s advantage. Judge Wilson ultimately rejected the murder charge and sloughed off the prosecution’s plea for conviction on lesser charges.
The daunting barriers that prosecutors face in trying to convict cops who kill will remain rigidly in place. This assures that cops on trial for killing people of color will continue to be America’s big charade.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. His latest book is “The Trump Challenge to Black America” (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on Radio One and host of “The Hutchinson Report,” airing weekly on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.