Opening arguments began in federal court yesterday in a lawsuit being brought by a woman who alleges she was pepper-sprayed and rammed to the ground by police amid a 2017 protest.
The civil case centers on the interaction between members of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's Civil Disobedience Team and Laura Jones, now 68, on September 15, 2017, during protests stemming from the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley.
Video shows Jones at Clark and Tucker avenues in the early evening when, confronted by a line of police officers marching forward, Jones hits the pavement.
In her suit, Jones says she was pepper sprayed before being “rammed by a police shield and thrown to the ground.” The police report says that Jones “tripped and fell.” She was placed under arrest soon thereafter.
The incident was caught on video and widely shared by protestors and media.
The question at the heart of the suit — and the $177,600 being sought by Jones — is whether police used excessive force.
In her suit, Jones says that the incident continues to haunt her and cause panic attacks.
In her opening statement, Jones’ attorney Alicia Campbell said that even though objects were thrown at officers during the protests, Jones was doing nothing other than "standing still with her hands up," flashing a peace sign when an officer knocked her down with a police shield. Campbell described Jones as an “art historian, elections judge and conscientious citizen.”
In the opening statement on behalf of the city and the individual police officers named in Jones’ suit, Associate City Counselor Abby Duncan said that “context is king” and that Jones was in the middle of “an anti-police protest turned violent.”
Duncan said that only incidental contact occurred between Jones and the three officers named as defendants in the suit, with one of the officers stumbling over her after she fell. Duncan referred to a text that Jones allegedly sent after the incident in which she refers to an officer stepping “over” her — as opposed to on her — when she was on the ground.
Duncan said the contact between Duncan and the officers was “a far cry from what would be considered excessive and in violation of [Jones’] Constitutional rights."
This current civil trial has its roots in the fatal police shooting more than a decade ago of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith.
On December 20, 2011, then-St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley and his partner Brian Bianchi went to investigate Smith after they said they saw him involved in a drug deal in the parking lot of a Church's Chicken in the Walnut Park West neighborhood.
When Stockley exited the police SUV he was armed with both his personally-owned AK-47 Draco as well as his service pistol, a 9mm Beretta. Smith attempted to flee in his silver Buick, but backed into the police SUV, nearly clipping Stockley with the Buick before taking off out of the parking lot.
Then, as the RFT's Doyle Murphy reported:
"Stockley switched the AK-47 — the Draco is a pistol version of the famed assault rifle — to his left hand, pulled his Beretta and fired seven rounds at the fleeing Buick before he rejoined Bianchi in the SUV to give chase. Superiors had previously told the West Point grad and Army vet not to carry the Draco. He testified in court he felt he needed the extra firepower but chose the smaller gun in the parking lot because the Draco was so powerful and hard to control that he worried he'd accidentally blast through walls of nearby buildings and wound bystanders."
"With Bianchi behind the wheel, the officers chased Smith at high speeds through north city neighborhoods. Prosecutors would later focus on a dashboard camera video that recorded Stockley saying, "Going to kill this motherfucker, don't you know it." His attorney, Neil Bruntrager, challenged the quotation, claiming there was too much static to hear exactly what was said. Stockley, however, testified he had listened to the recording and conceded he said the line or something very close to it. He said he didn't remember saying it but was sure he didn't mean it literally."
About three miles later, Stockley and Bianchi used their SUV to corner Smith in his Buick. Stockley ordered Bianchi to ram Smith, triggering the Buick's airbags. Stockley exited the SUV, carrying both the AK-47 and his handgun, and fired rounds through the driver's side window of Smith’s Buick. It later came to light at trial that the shot killing Smith had been fired from within six inches.
Smith’s daughter brought a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the police, which was settled for $900,000.
Five years after Smith’s shooting death, then-Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce filed first-degree murder charges against Stockley in May 2016.
Months after a four-day bench trial, the judge issued an acquittal on September 15, 2017, a Friday. That day, Jones and hundreds of others took to the streets in protest.
Protests continued throughout the weekend, later spurring numerous lawsuits and criminal investigations of law enforcement.
Detective Luther Hall was working undercover at another protest downtown on September 17, 2017 when fellow officers attacked him, causing a concussion and serious injuries to his back, among a variety of other injuries that have left Hall with lingering health effects.
Hall subsequently settled a lawsuit with the city and the department for $5 million.
The four officers eventually charged in the attack on Hall were, like the officers named in Jones' suit, members of the members of the department’s Civil Disobedience Team. Officer Randy Hays received the most serious punishment in the Hall case. After pleading guilty he was sentenced to more than four years in prison.
September 17 also saw the now-infamous kettle, in which police utilized a controversial technique that swept up protesters and bystanders alike in mass arrests.
A documentary filmmaker from Kansas City, a Post-Dispatch photographer, an Air Force lieutenant and others have filed lawsuits stemming from their arrests that weekend.
Attorney Javad Javad Khazaeli, whose firm is among those representing Laura Jones, is attempting to bring a class action lawsuit on behalf of more than 120 individuals arrested as part of the kettle.
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