ST. LOUIS (AP) — The judge who acquitted a white former St. Louis police officer in the killing of a black man is described as objective and well-respected by prosecutors and defense lawyers alike.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson, who must retire when he turns 70 in December, has ruled both for and against police during his 28 years on the bench.
"He's very methodical and a very objective judge," Jack Garvey, a lawyer and former St. Louis circuit judge told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "He really will review everything before he makes a decision. I don't think he's ideological in any way."
Wilson agreed to waive a jury trial and decide the case against Jason Stockley over the objection of prosecutors, writing that, "after 28 years serving as a trial judge, the Court is confident in its own judgment and analytical abilities."
People accused of crimes have the right to have their cases heard by a jury, but can opt to have the verdict rendered by a judge instead. Experts say a judge is more likely to understand the concept of reasonable doubt and not be swayed by emotions.
Three Baltimore officers accused in the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a police van, opted for bench trials, and were acquitted in 2016. In Cleveland, an officer accused of voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of two people was acquitted by a judge in 2015.
Stockley was charged with first-degree murder in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith following a high-speed chase. Stockley shot Smith five times, saying he saw Smith holding a gun. Prosecutors claimed Stockley planted a gun in Smith's car.
The fatal shooting of a black suspect by a white officer reignited racial tensions in the St. Louis area, which saw days of rioting after a grand jury declined to charge the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
But Judge Wilson, who is white and a former federal prosecutor, wrote in his opinion Friday that he wasn't "firmly convinced" of Stockley's guilt and was bound by the Code of Judicial Conduct to not be swayed by "partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism."
He said he pored over the evidence "again and again," including reviewing video from a restaurant surveillance camera, a squad car and a bystander's cellphone, and that he could not determine "beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley did not act in self-defense."
The gun recovered from the car was a full-size revolver that would have been visible on video if Stockley had tried to plant it, Wilson said, because it couldn't be concealed in his palm or pockets, and Stockley was not wearing a jacket.
What's more, Smith's DNA was on a bag that contained heroin found in his car, and the judge said based on his nearly 30 years on the bench, "an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly."
He said Stockley also did not begin shooting Smith when he approached the car, but 15 seconds later, after he ordered Smith to show his hands and open the door.
St. Louis defense lawyer Terence Niehoff told the Post-Dispatch that Wilson "doesn't just automatically believe the police," noting that the judge once acquitted a client of Niehoff's who was accused of pulling a gun on a police officer.
Wilson — known for his quirky personality and a large collection of Three Stooges episodes — has presided over many high-profile cases, including a kickback scheme involving two former Anheuser-Busch executives and a St. Louis advertising executive in 1988. They all received prison terms.
In 2002, he sentenced a driver who fatally struck a 7-year-old boy outside the St. Louis Zoo to 15 years in prison, which prosecutors at the time said was the longest sentence ever in the city for involuntary manslaughter.
That same year, Wilson freed a man who had served 18 years in prison for the rape of a St. Louis University student, after DNA evidence showed he was not responsible.