Judge Reopens Settled Lawsuit Against Acquitted Former Officer
St. Louis, MO – A previously settled wrongful death lawsuit against a former St. Louis police officer was reopened by a federal judge on Tuesday.
St. Louis Police Department (SLPD) Officer Jason Stockley fatally shot drug-dealer Anthony Lamar Smith on Dec. 20, 2011, after Smith rammed his vehicle into Officer Stockley’s patrol car, forcing the vehicle to collide with another car, the Belleville News-Democrat reported.
Before Smith and his accomplice fled the scene, officers noticed a gun on the passenger seat of the suspect’s vehicle. Smith then led police on a three minute high-speed pursuit on wet roadways, and at times drove into oncoming traffic.
Smith ultimately stopped his vehicle, and officers rushed towards him, and reached inside his vehicle.
During the struggle that ensued, Officer Stockley fired his duty weapon five times, killing Smith.
Investigators later recovered a handgun and a bag of heroin from inside Smith’s vehicle.
Federal and state prosecutors initially declined to charge Officer Stockley in relation to the shooting, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Attorney Albert Watkins filed a civil lawsuit against SLPD on behalf of Smith’s family, which settled for $900,000 in 2013.
Following the settlement, Officer Stockley was indicted for first-degree murder, after now-former Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce claimed to have discovered new evidence in the case.
Joyce alleged that Officer Stockley had planted the gun found inside Smith’s vehicle, because the officer’s DNA was found on the weapon.
The indictment also relied heavily on the testimony of SLPD internal affairs investigator Kirk Deeken.
Deeken repeatedly told grand jurors that Officer Stockley executed Smith by firing a fifth shot at close range about 22 seconds after he had fired four other shots, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
The prosecutors used Deeken’s theory during the murder trial, and called Officer Stockley’s fifth bullet a “kill shot.” The prosecutors described how a puff of gun smoke that was seen on the police SUV’s dash camera was proof of that fifth “kill shot.”
But a cellphone video clip taken by a nearby business owner showed Officer Elijah Simpson was there when the fifth shot was allegedly fired. Officer Simpson told the grand jury and at trial that he didn’t see or hear any additional shots. In all, there was no evidence of a "kill shot" besides the "smoke."
At trial, Judge Wilson concluded that the puff of smoke was exhaled breath in cold air.
Deeken also testified that only Officer Stockley’s DNA was found on a silver .38 caliber Taurus revolver that Deeken said he found inside Smith’s car.
Deeken told the grand jury that a DNA expert told him that Officer Stockley’s DNA on the gun came from his blood, but Officer Stockley had no open wounds after the shooting. This suggested the blood had to have been left on weapon the before the shooting, which would be evidence that the gun was planted.
During Deeken’s deposition in May, he said he couldn’t remember why he told the grand jury that Officer Stockley’s blood was on the gun.
At trial, the same DNA expert said he didn’t tell Deeken that Officer Stockley’s blood was on the gun. The DNA expert said that the city’s crime lab could only confirm the presence of DNA, but not its biological source. Officer Stockley had recovered the gun from Smith's vehicle and unloaded it, and his DNA could have been easily transferred while touching it.
Deeken told the grand jury that Stockley violated department policy by handling the gun. In his deposition, Deeken admitted that at the time of the shooting in 2011, the police department had no policy forbidding officers from handling weapons used against them.
Deeken testified in a sworn deposition in May that he knew of no new evidence given to Joyce, who has since retired. Joyce claimed that the Internal Affairs Division presented her with new evidence which allowed her to file the charges after her own office and federal prosecutors had previously declined to charge them.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Joyce never identified the new evidence. And Joyce’s successor Kim Gardner said she could not say what it was.
Officer Stockley’s attorney, Neil Bruntrager, said that Deeken’s testimony was crucial.
“Without Deeken’s testimony, I believe they never would have got an indictment,” Bruntrager said. The indictment gave the case, “integrity that it didn’t deserve. [Prosecutors] gave people an expectation that there was something here when, in fact, there wasn’t.”
“You have in the prosecutor a position of trust when you have a grand jury,” Bruntrager said. “And when you put a witness like Deeken on, you are saying to them, ‘This is believable,’ and they take your lead and they ultimately got an indictment, and I think that’s a violation of the public trust.”
Judge Timothy Wilson acquitted Officer Stockley on Sep. 15, 2017.
Watkins said that, during the civil lawsuit, he was never made aware that only Officer Stockley’s DNA had been found on the weapon recovered from Smith’s vehicle, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
He argued that the DNA information could have impacted the settlement figure, and filed motions to reopen the lawsuit.
At the request of Attorney General Josh Hawley, former federal prosecutor Hal Goldsmith launched an investigation into the case, and determined that the DNA evidence had not been turned over to Watkins, despite court mandates.
Judge Jean Hamilton considered Goldsmith’s findings when she made her decision to reopen the civil lawsuit, Watkins said.
“The court has wide discretion here,” Watkins added. “If we have contempt found by the court, it can say it would be worth $1 million more. I’m looking for as much money as humanly possible.”