ST. LOUIS — The fate of a former St. Louis police officer accused of killing a suspect rests with a judge, not a jury of his peers. Experts say that given the public scrutiny of recent police shootings, Jason Stockley’s decision to opt for a bench trial makes sense.
Stockley, 36, who is white, is charged with first-degree murder in the December 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old black drug suspect who was shot after leading police on a chase. The trial before veteran Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson began Tuesday and is expected to last about two weeks.
The U.S. Constitution spells out that people accused of crimes have the right to have their cases heard “by an impartial jury,” but defendants can opt to have the verdict rendered by a judge. Peter Joy, a professor at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said Stockley’s decision to waive a jury trial “has a lot to do with the public’s awareness of the shooting, especially in St. Louis.”
“Also, in some parts of the city, relations between the police and citizens of the city are not great,” Joy said Wednesday.
The St. Louis area has been the site of several shootings of black suspects by police officers in the three years since 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, was fatally shot by white officer Darren Wilson in nearby Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson was not charged with a crime, but the shooting led to months of often violent protests.
Stockley’s request last month for a bench trial didn’t state a reason; a gag order in the case has prevented attorneys from commenting outside the courtroom. Prosecutors wanted the case heard by a 12-member jury. Assistant Circuit Attorney Aaron Levinson wrote in a motion of opposition that the “factual determinations necessary for a finding in this case would be better made by twelve impartial members of the community.”
Levinson also wrote that trials involving officers charged with shooting people “are of particular interest to the public. Removing these cases from juries and letting a single judge determine guilt in such controversial cases creates a perception amongst the public that police officers accused of crimes get special treatment in our criminal justice system.”
But Larry Cunningham, vice dean at St. John’s University School of Law in New York and a former prosecutor, said people accused of crimes usually prefer a jury trial “because all you need is one juror out of the 12 in order to get a hung jury. Just convince the jury there’s a little reasonable doubt, you’re likely to get an acquittal.”
Wilson, a 69-year-old former assistant U.S. attorney who has been a judge since 1989, agreed to waive the jury trial, writing that “after 28 years serving as a trial judge, the Court is confident in its own judgment and analytical abilities.”
Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said 83 nonfederal law enforcement officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter related to an on-duty shooting since 2005. Thirty were convicted, though often of a lesser crime than the original charge. Fourteen pleaded guilty and 16 were convicted by jury trial.
Stinson said no officer was convicted in a bench trial, but six were acquitted in bench trials.
Three of the Baltimore officers accused in the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a police van, opted for bench trials. Officers Edward Nero and Caesar Goodson Jr. and Lt. Brian Rice were all acquitted in 2016. In Cleveland, officer Michael Brelo, accused of voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of two people, was acquitted in a 2015 bench trial.
Cunningham said the benefit of having a judge decide the case is that the judge is more likely to “understand and apply the concept of reasonable doubt and be guided by the law, rather than emotions.”