The fate of a former police officer charged with first-degree murder is now in the hands of a judge.
Closing arguments concluded just before noon Wednesday in the bench trial of Jason Stockley, 36, who once served in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
Stockley is accused of fatally shooting Anthony Smith, 24, in December 2011 following a suspected drug deal involving Smith and a high-speed chase through parts of north city.
It’s the first time in approximately 20 years that an officer has stood trial on murder charges in the city. If convicted, Stockley faces a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Circuit Court Judge Timothy Wilson set an August 18 deadline for both sides to file compelling reasons why their arguments should prevail in the high-profile case.
Wilson said he would not issue a verdict before that date, meaning it’ll be at least next week before we know the outcome of the trial.
Stockley waived his right to have the case heard before a jury of his peers and instead opted for a bench trial that ended up lasting five days.
During closing arguments, First Assistant Circuit Attorney Robert Steele said the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley should be found guilty of first-degree murder.
In referencing lesser charges that Stockley could be convicted of, including second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, Steel said, “of the smorgasbord of all those options, they’re all served from a buffet of guilt.”
Prosecutors believe Stockley premeditated the shooting death of Smith on December 20, 2011 and then planted a drop gun in Smith’s car because he knew the killing wasn’t justified.
Steele said when Stockley and his partner Officer Brian Bianci first encountered Smith in the parking lot of the Church’s Chicken at Riverview & Thekla, Stockley alone fired seven shots at Smith’s fleeing car.
Steele pointed out that even though Bianci allegedly yelled there was a gun in the car and was closer than Stockley to Smith in the driver’s seat, he re-holstered his gun.
“This is nonsense 101. You don’t have to be a cop to know this. Why would you put your gun away if Anthony Smith was armed?” Steele told the court.
The difference, Steele argued, was that Stockley had made up his mind that he was going to murder Smith.
On police dash-cam video during a pursuit that ensued from the Chuch’s Chicken parking lot, Stockley is overheard saying he was going “kill” him. Forty-five seconds later, Steele said, Stockley fired five shots into Smith with a “kill shot” coming from within six inches away.
“The video don’t lie,” Steele said, adding the state believes Smith was executed in cold blood.
Steele said four of the five shell casings recovered on scene were found outside Smith’s car, but only one was found inside the car. Stockley, Steele added, was also the only officer on scene of the shooting who removed his gloves.
Steele argued he did that to “create a scenario” for why his DNA was on the gun because he knew the shooting was not justified.
Steele pointed out again that when the chase ended in a crash less than three miles away at West Florissant & Acme, that no other officer, including Bianci, removed their firearm even though they were gathered near Smith’s driver’s side window.
Steele said Stockley retrieved the revolver from his duty bag in his department SUV and placed it in Smith’s car “to put on a show.”
If Stockley was so concerned about his safety and the safety of others around him, Steele said, why didn’t he seize the firearm from Smith’s car immediately? Steele pointed it out he only recovered the gun after making multiple trips back and forth between the SUV and the car.
Steele urged the court to find a verdict of guilty so Smith’s family could have “justice they’ve been waiting for.”
During the defense’s closing, attorney Neil Bruntrager said the case must be decided on what Stockley thought and reasonably believed that day.
He said Smith’s actions at the Church’s Chicken “say it all.”
Bruntrager said the moment Smith decided to strike Stockley with his car and flee the scene armed with a gun, Stockley had a “duty” to stop the ongoing threat.
“Smith was desperate to get away. Clearly, his intent was to not get arrested,” Bruntrager argued, adding Smith posed a threat of injury or death.
He said under Missouri law, lethal force was justified because Stockley was “in fear of his life.”
In reference to the dash-cam comments about “killing” Smith, Bruntrager said statements like that made during a stressful chase approaching 90 miles per hour arise out of “human emotion.”
He refuted claims that this was an execution. Citing the 15 seconds it took between Stockley getting out of his car at the crash site and before Smith was first shot, he said, “Do you wait 15 seconds if it’s an execution?”
Bruntrager said the pursuit was “dangerous” for the officers involved and the surrounding community, and that Smith made choices that put peoples’ lives at risk.
He also refuted claims there was any kill shot, arguing multiple witnesses testified everyone heard the shots in succession.
And in an effort to cast doubt on the validity of the DNA analysis presented in court showing only Stockley’s DNA was on the gun recovered from Smith’s car, Bruntrager said no confirmatory testing was ever done.
He said Stockley rendered the gun safe the day of the shooting by emptying its cartridges, so naturally his DNA would be on it. He added that the absence of Smith’s DNA doesn’t mean he didn’t touch it.
“No gun came out of that SUV,” Bruntrager exclaimed, adding that Stockley had no way to conceal it on his body.
He called the state’s argument a “conspiracy,” saying if there was a drop gun, then all other officers involved would be “complicit.”
Bruntrager summarized by saying there is an abundance of evidence showing Stockley acted in self-defense and that based on the evidence presented, lethal force was justified.
“Jason Stockley acted within the limits of his authority,” he said.