Questions of gun planting, outburst key in officer’s verdict

A judge’s decision to acquit an officer of murder in the death of a black suspect came down to two major questions: Did the officer plant a gun, and did his outburst about killing the man seconds before the shooting signal premeditation?

St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson determined Friday that prosecutors failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jason Stockley’s use of deadly force was not justifiable self-defense. Anthony Lamar Smith was killed in the 2011 encounter.

“Ultimately when people argue about this case, they are going to be arguing whether the judge drew the right conclusion from the evidence and probably less about the law,” said Ben Trachtenberg, an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri.

Here’s a look at how the judge parsed those arguments in his ruling:

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DID THE OFFICER PLANT THE GUN?

The officers were investigating what appeared to be a drug transaction in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. The car sped away and a high-speed chase ensued. Police slammed their SUV into Smith’s car. Stockley then got out and fired five shots into Smith’s car, killing him. A handgun was found in the car after the shooting.

Prosecutors argued the presence of Stockley’s DNA — and absence of Smith’s DNA — on the gun proved the gun must have been planted by the officer.

But the defense countered that Stockley heard his partner yell “gun” and saw the driver’s hand on a gun as the car sped by him. Stockley testified he did not draw his service revolver and fire until he saw Smith reaching around inside the vehicle after it was stopped. He said Smith changed his demeanor, suggesting he found the gun.

Stockley testified that after the shooting he found the gun tucked down between the seat and the center console, and he rendered the gun safe by unloading cartridges from the cylinder and then left the gun and cartridges on the passenger seat.

In his ruling, Wilson wrote that “a fact issue that is central” to the case is whether Smith had the gun when he was shot. He found the state’s contention that the officer planted the gun is not supported by evidence.

A full-sized revolver was too large for the officer to hide in his pants pockets and he was not wearing a jacket, the judge said. If the gun had been tucked into his belt, it would have been visible on a bystander’s video that showed Stockley walking between the police car and Smith’s car, he found.

Wilson also noted none of the officers standing…

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