The roots of the protests that continue to rock St. Louis reach deeper than former police officer Jason Stockley's acquittal for murder. To trace them, one must look back, beyond the mass arrests and clouds of pepper spray, past the judge's ruling on September 15 and even beyond the five-day trial in August that culminated with Stockley testifying that, yes, he had shot Anthony Lamar Smith dead in December 2011.
Trace those roots, perhaps, back to May 2016.
On May 16, U.S. Marshals arrested Stockley in his Texas home and shipped him to St. Louis to face first-degree murder charges and accusations that he'd killed the unarmed 24-year-old and planted a gun to justify the murder.
The news was explosive. It's not every day a cop is charged with murder over a matter that has already been passed over by local, state and federal investigators. And first-degree? No cop in St. Louis had ever been accused, let alone convicted, of committing a pre-mediated slaying in the line of duty.
The Reverend Philip Duvall wasn't surprised. For months, he had been working with other activists to reignite interest in the Stockley case, a campaign that included both press conferences and back-channel meetings with city officials. He knew that Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce had reopened the case and was pleased to see her take action.
He still wasn't prepared for what happened eight days later.
On the morning of May 25, Duvall's phone buzzed with an unfamiliar number. The caller had urgent instructions — Duvall, he said, needed to visit a public library in north city.
"There's a package there for you," the voice told Duvall. "We have information that will be most helpful in what you and Shahid are trying to uncover."
Duvall's partner in pushing for Stockley's prosecution was activist Anthony Shahid, a polarizing and often abrasive provocateur who has spent years accusing St. Louis' political and police establishments of racism and corruption.
Duvall and Shahid had known each other for decades. In January 2016, Duvall says, Shahid confided to him that sources within the police department were finally feeling pangs of conscience over a "coverup" in the four-year-old Stockley case.
Sources within the police department, Shahid said, were finally feeling pangs of conscience over a "coverup" in the four-year-old Stockley case.tweet this
Three years before, a wrongful death suit filed by Smith's family resulted in a $900,000 settlement — thought to be the largest such payout in the city's history — but the criminal case languished.
After the initial investigation, homicide detectives determined that no laws been broken. An Internal Affairs investigation went nowhere.
Since the St. Louis police department was then regulated by the state, the case fell to the U.S. Attorney's office. The FBI opened an investigation, followed by the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. In November 2012, then-U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan decided the evidence was lacking and declined to prosecute Stockley.
At the time, Callahan had informally invited prosecutors in the office of the circuit attorney to review the case. In the following year, the city took control of the police department, thus granting the office the responsibility to prosecute crimes committed by police officers. But again, there was silence.
Even as the activists staged press conferences with Smith's mother outside City Hall and demanded that Stockley face justice, they were mostly going on gut instinct. Aside from Shahid's insider sources, Duvall acknowledges, the activists still had no access to evidence they believed would prove that Stockley was a gun-planting killer cop. Even some material that might normally become public years after a shooting was still under a federal judge's protective order in the civil case.
Everything changed when Duvall picked up the phone that morning in May.
Following the instructions of the anonymous caller, Duvall and Shahid met at the Julia Davis branch of the St. Louis public library. The activists waited at the front desk while a librarian rummaged through a back office, returning a few minutes later with an envelope bearing Duvall's name.
Inside was a flash drive. The two men found a table in a quiet corner of the library and plugged the drive into Duvall's laptop. It held three video files. Duvall scrolled to the first one and hit play.
"I never asked who the leaker was," Duvall says in an interview. But whoever it was had given the two activists what seemed like the smoking gun: hard evidence that something was not right about Stockley's story about being "in fear for his safety" from an armed drug suspect.
The files contained around ten minutes of footage showing the immediate aftermath of Smith's death on December 20, 2011 — a critical discovery that, they would later learn, prosecutors had used to run with the case years after it had been abandoned by multiple agencies. The perspective suggested that the video had been shot from the second floor of a nearby building, an angle granting a bird's-eye view of the death scene. They could see Stockley walking around the totaled silver Buick where Smith's body still sat in the driver's seat, bleeding into the cushion.
The video shook both Duvall and Shahid.
"I was angry," the pastor recalls. After all, the video was more than four years old. "Why would it take so long for this leak out?"