It has been nearly 20 years since a police officer in the City of St. Louis has stood trial for murder.
But on Tuesday at the Carnahan Courthouse downtown, that will change with a case that some activists say could thrust the city back into the national spotlight.
“Whatever the outcome is, it’s going to impact our community and police relations in this city,” said Adolphus Pruitt, the president of the city’s NAACP chapter.
Opening statements are scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. in the first-degree murder trial of former St. Louis Police Officer Jason Stockley.
Stockley, who left the force in 2013 and now resides in Houston, is also charged with armed criminal action. He is currently free on bond.
Stockley has also waived his rights to a jury trial and will instead have a bench trial, meaning only a judge will decide his fate. The trial is scheduled to last at least two weeks.
Pruitt said regardless of the verdict, there will be implications for the African-American community and law enforcement officers.
“Either way it goes, the community is going to have to wrestle with the outcome,” he said.
On December 20, 2011, Anthony Lamar Smith, 24, was shot five times and killed by Stockley.
The shooting in north city followed a suspected drug deal involving Smith and a high-speed chase that prosecutors said reached more than 80 mph.
Former Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce announced charges against Stockley in May 2016, citing “additional evidence” that surfaced. Before that, the case had essentially laid dormant since 2012.
According to court documents, Stockley was heard on police dash-cam footage during the pursuit saying that “he was going to kill” Smith.
Stockley also is heard instructing his partner, who was driving their marked SUV, to “hit” Smith “right now.”
There was a gun found inside Smith’s car, but according to court documents, only Stockley’s DNA was on it. Joyce, while in office, called that discovery “concerning.”
Al Watkins, an attorney who represents Smith’s family in civil matters related to his death, believes the evidence of premeditation is convincing.
“You have a police officer on video telling you what he is going to do. And that’s to kill a guy,” Watkins said.
But he admitted that Smith’s daughter and other surviving relatives are afraid of how the trial might end.
“There is a certain degree of trepidation. They have a fear that justice won’t be done,” Watkins said.
The last time a city police officer stood trial for murder was in the early 2000’s, according to the Circuit Attorney’s Office. In that case, officer Robert Dodson was acquitted.
In more recent times, the same or similar outcomes have been reached nationwide in high-profile cases involving police officers charged with murder.
Pruitt said that’s one reason why there’s so much caution among the African-American community when it comes to prosecuting law enforcement, even when alleged crimes are captured on video.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, the justice system is the justice system we have,” he said.
He said the only positive thing that can come out of Stockley’s trial is progress toward building better community relations with police.
Pruitt said, “The best thing that could come out of this is that we learn some lessons to prevent something like this going forward.”
Stockley’s defense team declined to comment, citing a gag order issued by the judge presiding over the case.