Killer cop trials are America’s big charades

Earl O. Hutchinson | 9/21/2017, 6 a.m.

Former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley is the latest in the never-ending revolving door of cops charged with murder, manslaughter, reckless endangerment or any other of the array of charges brought against cops who wantonly kill and walk free. The victims in a disproportionate number of cases are mostly young unarmed African American or Hispanic males. The names of the most recent victims are familiar: Samuel DuBose, Sylville Smith, Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher. Four black men slain by police in three cities at four different times. Now with Stockley’s acquittal by a judge we can add the name of Anthony Lamar Smith to the grim list.

The circumstances in the five cases have much in common. The killings came after stops by the officers. The men apparently posed no physical threat to the officers. Two were shot while running away. Three were shot in their cars. Smith was one of them. The other thing they have in common, and the reason why the state even goes through the motions of filing charges, is that the killings are caught on video. There was one slight departure from the script in the Smith killing. Stockley was acquitted by a judge, not a jury.

The judge who acquitted Stockley gave a revealing glimpse into the Mt. Everest-high bar in trying to get a cop conviction in deadly force cases. He noted that Smith was a drug dealer, and that a bag of heroin was found in his car. He then leaped from that to make the startling claim that it’s not entirely unlikely that a drug dealer would be armed. From that startling claim the implication hung heavily that if he had a gun he was likely to use it. Therefore, this supposedly supported Stockley’s claim that he feared for his life and shot in self-defense. It made no difference that there was not a trace of Smith’s DNA on the gun he was alleged to have. The judge quickly waved away the charge that Stockley planted a gun and the videotape that showed suspicious behavior by Stockley as “inconclusive.”

The major elements that set the near impossible high bar for cop convictions were on glaring display in the Stockley trial — a poor black male, a criminal history, a video that can be skewed any number of ways and a gun. That’s just the starting point. Anthony Lamar Smith was killed in 2011. That’s a six-year lag. During that period memories fade, public outrage and protests are long over, and the accused officers have sufficient time to tailor and perfect their versions of why they resorted to deadly force. They also are represented by attorneys courtesy of, and paid for by, police unions who are among the best in the defense trial business with lots of experience defending police officers accused of misconduct. The officers are immediately bailed out and they will serve no actual pre-trial jail time. They make motions for a change of venue or ask for a bench trial. The legal ploy worked with Stockley. He got a judge and an acquittal. The presumption is that a judge is much more likely to believe the testimony of police and police defense witnesses than black witnesses, defendants or even the victims.