Protests erupt after ex-cop acquitted in black man’s death

(CNN) — Protests broke out in St. Louis after former police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted Friday of first-degree murder in the 2011 shooting death of black driver Anthony Lamar Smith.

At least 23 people were arrested and 10 law enforcement officers injured in protests Friday night.

The city had been on edge for days. Shortly after the verdict, people gathered outside the courthouse to protest the controversial ruling. Some protesters locked arms and prayed together, but within hours others were smashing the windshield of a police vehicle and throwing water bottles, rocks and bricks at law enforcement.

Stockley expressed a sense of relief after the acquittal and said he felt vindicated that the judge ruled he had done nothing wrong.

“It feels like a burden has been lifted, but the burden of having to kill someone never really lifts,” Stockley told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“The taking of someone’s life is the most significant thing one can do, and it’s not done lightly. … My main concern now is for the first responders, the people just trying to go to work and the protesters. I don’t want anyone to be hurt in any way over this.”

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Protests started peacefully with some people making their way to the police headquarters to call for officers’ resignations. St. Louis police said the demonstrators later threw rocks at the mayor’s home and hit officers with water bottles.

St. Louis Metro Police Department Chief Lawrence O’Toole said his officers showed great restraint despite injuries.

Video footage showed officers using tear gas to disperse the crowds after police said the protests were considered an unlawful assembly. O’Toole said his officers used pepper balls.

‘Everyone wants someone to blame’

In 2011, Stockley, then a St. Louis officer, fatally shot Smith, 24, after a police chase in December over a suspected drug deal.

Stockley said that before firing his weapon, he ordered Smith to show his hands, and believed the suspect was reaching for a handgun between the center console and the passenger seat, according to a police department report obtained by the Post-Dispatch.

In the report, Stockley said he entered Smith’s car “to locate the weapon and render it safe,” and removed the ammunition from the silver revolver.

During the trial, prosecutors argued that a revolver found in Smith’s car had been planted by Stockley to justify the shooting, but the gun was never seen from the multiple cameras that captured Stockley and other officers at the scene.

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He said he understood the video of the shooting looked bad to investigators and the public.

“Every resisting (arrest) looks bad, it never looks good,” Stockley said. “But you have to separate the optics from the facts.”

Initially, state and federal authorities did not prosecute Stockley, but in Ferguson’s aftermath, then-St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce charged him with first-degree murder in May 2016, citing new evidence.

He pleaded not guilty to the first-degree murder charge and waived his right to a jury trial, meaning the ruling was left to the judge.

On Friday’s ruling, St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson said the prosecution’s argument was “not supported by the evidence.” The gun was too large, Wilson said, for Stockley to hide it from the cameras at the scene.

“I can feel for and I understand what the family is going through, and I know everyone wants someone to blame, but I’m just not the guy,” Stockley said in the interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Stockley left the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in August 2013. Later that year, the St. Louis police board settled a wrongful death suit with Smith’s survivors for $900,000.