Jason Stockley, the former St. Louis police officer who was acquitted of murder Friday in the 2011 fatal shooting of a black man, broke his months-long silence and doubled down on his innocence after the ruling.
The interview, which appeared to be videotaped in a private indoor space, came hours after a judge released a 30-page order concluding as much: that the state had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley “did not act in self-defense” when he shot and killed Smith, 24, during a car chase in December 2011.
It was the first time Stockley, who had been under a gag order, publicly addressed the case, which has exacerbated tensions in a region already grappling with unrest surrounding police use of force and race.
“It feels like a burden has been lifted, but the burden of having to kill someone never really lifts,” Stockley told the Post-Dispatch. “The taking of a life is the most significant thing that one can do, and it’s not something that is done lightly and it’s not something that should ever be celebrated. And it’s just a horrible experience altogether. But, sometimes, it’s necessary.”
As in trial, Stockley insisted that he did not recall saying during the car chase that he was “going to kill this motherf—er, don’t you know it,” as outlined in court documents. Prosecutors also noted that a gun found in Smith’s car was later found to contain only Stockley’s DNA and accused the officer of planting the firearm.
Stockley said that his memory was imperfect and that the first time he heard himself saying what he did in the car was when he met with the FBI; he could only speculate as to why he had said it, “whether it was in the heat of the moment or whether it was part of a larger conversation,” he said.
“I can tell you with absolute certainty that there was no plan to murder Anthony Smith during a high-speed vehicle pursuit,” Stockley told the newspaper. “It’s just not the case.”
Stockley acknowledged in his interview that the “optics” of the case looked bad but said he had made the best decisions possible “based on limited information and a limited amount of time.”
“Every resisting looks bad. They never look good,” Stockley told the Post-Dispatch. “So what you have to separate are the optics from the facts, and if a person is unwilling to do that, then they’ve already made up their mind and the facts just don’t matter. To those people, there’s nothing that I can do to change their minds.”
Stockley declined an interview request Saturday through his attorney, Neil J. Bruntrager, who told The Washington Post that his client’s conversation with the Post-Dispatch was likely a “one and done” situation. The trial, he said, had left Stockley emotionally exhausted.
“All you’re doing is reading these articles and statements from people who are ill-informed and demonizing you, and you have no ability to respond,” Bruntrager said. “Think what that must be like. … I don’t know how the top of his head didn’t blow off.”
As general counsel for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, Bruntrager also represented Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., a St. Louis suburb. He emphasized, however, that Stockley’s case preceded the Brown shooting by several years and needed to be considered individually.
“It’s important to look at the video, but that’s not all of the evidence … I would encourage people to read Judge [Timothy] Wilson’s opinion because here’s a detailed examination of the facts of the case, and it leaves no stone unturned,” Bruntrager said. “This wasn’t a routine traffic stop. This was a drug-related stop. Those by their very nature — they’re deadly.”
The judge’s ruling Friday prompted protests in St. Louis, which began peacefully but, after nightfall, turned violent, according to a joint video statement by St. Louis Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole and Mayor Lyda Krewson. The clashes resulted in at least 23 arrests and 10 injured police officers, O’Toole said. Even before the acquittal, the city was bracing for protests, as The Post reported:
On Friday night, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R), who had put the state’s National Guard on standby ahead of the verdict and potential protests, chastised those who engaged in violence, saying it “is not going to be tolerated here in the state of Missouri.”Before the verdict was announced, Greitens stood with Christina Wilson, Smith’s fiancee, to deliver a joint message asking people to protest peacefully.“If you feel like you want to speak out, speak how you feel,” Wilson said at the news briefing. “And whatever comes to you, just do it in a peaceful way.”Greitens, speaking after Wilson, urged people who felt pain after the verdict not to “turn that pain into violence.”“One life has been lost in this case, and we don’t need more bloodshed,” he said.
In his interview with the Post-Dispatch, Stockley said he was concerned the ensuing protests would escalate to violence.
“My main concern now is for the first responders, the people just trying to go to work and the protesters,” Stockley told the newspaper. “I don’t want anyone to be hurt in any way over this.”
According to his LinkedIn profile, Stockley left the St. Louis police force in 2013 and moved to Houston, where he worked as a regional project manager at TH Hill Associates, an oil and gas drilling consulting firm. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 2002 with degrees in philosophy and nuclear engineering; afterward, Stockley served in the Army in Iraq, where he received a bronze star, and was honorably discharged after an injury, Bruntrager said.
Stockley told the Post-Dispatch on Friday that he had been apart from his family and had no plan besides “not to let this dictate my life.” When asked what he might have done differently on that day in December 2011, he responded: “Take the day off.”
“I don’t know how changing any number of my actions that day would have changed the outcome,” he told the newspaper. There was one main reason he had agreed to speak about the case.
“Because I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “If you’re telling the truth, and you’ve been wrongfully accused, you should be shouting it from a mountaintop.”