- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 15

Reasonable doubt sets Stockley free. Reasonable outrage is the result.

Judge Timothy J. Wilson has no illusions about the popularity of justice. “No one promises a rose garden, and this surely is not,” he wrote near the end of his 30-page explanation of why he acquitted former St. Louis Police Officer Jason Stockley of murder in the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith. Wilson’s verdict Friday turned on his judgment that prosecutors failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Reasonable” is the key word here. Wilson’s verdict can be read as entirely reasonable. It can also be read as entirely unreasonable by those who interpret the testimony and evidence as signs of Stockley’s guilt. Cops with a reasonable fear for their safety have been given wide latitude by the U.S. Supreme Court to use deadly force. The Missouri Legislature has extended the “reasonableness” standard to private citizens who use deadly force in self-defense.

But reasonableness becomes harder to accept when, time after time, law enforcers are acquitted - or not even charged - in questionable killings of black citizens. Reasonableness gives way to understandable outrage, as it did on the streets of downtown St. Louis Friday.

Nationally, Stockley’s acquittal is the fourth since May of law enforcers charged in questionable shootings of black men. A woman officer was acquitted in Tulsa, a Hispanic male officer in St. Anthony, Minn., and a black male officer in Milwaukee.

America has a problem here. There are too many guns and too many justifiably nervous but poorly trained cops making bad decisions in stressful situations. Citizens, black and white alike, have a right to expect better.

This is particularly true in the Stockley case, which was botched from the start. City police have improved the way they investigate officer-involved shootings since 2011, and the Stockley case is a prime example of why change was needed. It was batted around the police Internal Affairs Division, the FBI and the circuit attorney’s office for two years. Then Smith’s family won a $900,000 settlement from the state board that then ran the police department.

Stockley left the department in August 2013, but the case lay dormant until activists kept asking questions that could no longer be ignored. Then-Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce filed murder charges in May 2016.

Stockley, by then living in Houston, was freed on bond posted by his old colleagues at the St. Louis Police Officers Association. He and his lawyers opted for a bench trial, avoiding the vagaries of city jurors and leaving the decision up to Wilson, who has a reputation for scrupulous fairness. It proved to be a wise decision from Stockley’s perspective.

Wilson wrote that he reviewed the video of the incident “innumerable times” in minute detail during the five weeks since the trial ended Aug. 9. He dismissed warnings from a clergy group, activists and the black police officers union about the civil disruption that could result from a not-guilty verdict. In the end, the ancient standard of “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” prevailed over the prosecution’s explosive charges.

What about the dashboard audio recording of Stockley saying “I’m going to kill this (expletive), don’t you know it,” as he and his partner, Brian Bianchi, chased Smith’s Buick through north St. Louis? Not conclusive of prior intent, Wilson ruled. It could have been caused by the stress of an 87 mph chase. Besides, after the chase ended, Stockley approached the Buick cautiously with his weapon holstered, not what a cop intent on killing would have done, Wilson wrote.

But what about the short-barreled Draco AK-47 pistol he carried that day? A departmental violation, Wilson wrote, but not a criminal one. Besides, there was no evidence that it was ever fired.

What about the .38-caliber Taurus revolver recovered from Smith’s car, the one prosecutors said Stockley planted? The one with Stockley’s DNA on it but not Smith’s?

Not conclusive, Wilson wrote. The prosecution’s own experts said the absence of DNA proves nothing, and Stockley admitted that he’d handled the gun to unload it. Nor does video of the scene show Stockley retrieving the revolver from his duty bag or any sign that he had it stuffed in a belt or pocket.

What about the so-called “kill shot” that prosecutors had said was fired from just six inches away? The medical examiner said that wound was not the one that killed Smith.

All reasonable points, tied tightly to the law. In 30 pages, the only time Wilson strays from “just the facts” is when he expresses skepticism about the prosecution’s claim that Smith was unarmed: “The court observes, based on its nearly 30 years on the bench, that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.” That’s a troubling assertion from a judge who went to pains in all other instances to filter out such presumptive and speculative bias.

In the end, Wilson wrote, “This court, as the trier of fact, is simply not firmly convinced of defendant’s guilt. Agonizingly, this court has pored over the evidence again and again. . This court, in conscience, cannot say that the state has proven every element of murder beyond a reasonable doubt or that the defendant did not act in self-defense.”

Given his reading of the facts, that’s entirely reasonable. Given the racial animus that underlies the larger issue, so are the protests.


The Kansas City Star, Sept. 13

Have you paid a traffic ticket in Missouri? The state could end up owing you money

Missourians who’ve paid a speeding or parking ticket in the last few years will want to pay close attention to a class-action lawsuit recently filed in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Millions of dollars in ticket surcharges, past and future, are at stake.

So is a more fundamental issue: unwisely using court fines to raise money for government programs, instead of increasing taxes or cutting spending somewhere else.

Our story begins in May, when two local men, Daven Fowler and Jerry Keller, got speeding tickets in Kansas City. When they paid their fines, a $3 surcharge had been added to the penalty.

What was the $3 for? Better equipment for police? Paperwork?

No. The $3 fee, added to every parking and speeding ticket in Kansas City Municipal Court, pays for the retirement of roughly 125 former county sheriffs in Missouri. County-based circuit courts have collected the fee for years, but municipal courts were exempt until 2013.

That year, under circumstances that remain murky, the state’s court administrator reversed himself and ordered judges to collect the $3 fee from every violator appearing in virtually every municipal court in Missouri.

Some judges and some cities balked. They found it outrageous that speeders were required to pay into the sheriffs’ once-wobbly pension fund - sheriffs have no role in city courts. To this day, some cities refuse to collect the fee.

Fowler and Keller are upset, too. In August, they sued the Missouri Sheriff’s Retirement System and asked a Jackson County judge to declare the $3 surcharge unconstitutional.

“The $3 surcharge paid by plaintiffs bears no reasonable relationship to the expenses of administration of justice in Missouri’s municipal courts,” the lawsuit claims.

Notably, the pair filed their lawsuit as a class action. That means a court could order a refund to every Missouri citizen who’s ever paid the $3 surcharge in a municipal court. That could be serious money. In 2013, the state estimated the $3 fee would raise $1.5 million annually.

We welcome the court case. It could be a turning point in the effort to stop lawmakers from using city courts as a piggy bank for programs they don’t want to fund.

That $3 fee is not the only surcharge tacked on to speeding tickets in Missouri. The city court collects $7.50 for crime victims, and another $4 for domestic violence shelters. There’s a $2 fine for an “inmate prisoner detainee security fund.” Add $2 for law enforcement training. The courthouse Restoration and Maintenance Fund gets $5 a ticket. And, of course, $3 for the retired sheriffs.

Cha-ching. Kansas City’s Municipal Court adds $48.50 to every speeding ticket, and $22.50 for every parking ticket, for court costs and surcharges.

Any single ticket-funded program might be worthwhile. Added together, the surcharges are unfair, particularly to lower-income Missourians.

One of the biggest and most important complaints in the aftermath of the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., was about the blatant use of city courts as a revenue-raising source. There has been some progress on that front, but more must be done.

Lawmakers should ask all taxpayers to support needed programs, not just speeders. We hope a judge sees it that way, too.


The St. Joseph News-Press, Sept. 13

Pension crisis at hand

Missouri State Treasurer Eric Schmitt has our attention, and he should have the attention of anyone who has an interest in the state’s financial future.

Schmitt, previously a Republican state senator from the St. Louis area, took office in January and immediately began talking about looming problems with the state’s public pension obligations. Wednesday, he ratcheted up his concerns.

“This crisis is no longer on the horizon. It’s on our doorstep,” he said, referencing a pension funding deficit of $5.2 billion. “. We are thousands of dollars in debt for every single Missouri taxpayer.”

In detailing the crisis, Schmitt makes alarming points:

? The pension system, known as MOSERS, is 60 percent funded, Schmitt says. Normally, he says, funding of 80 percent or better is considered healthy.

? Worse, in the early 2000s, the state’s pension obligations were nearly 100 percent funded. A recession intervened, but a drop to 60 percent funding is alarming, and the trend continues in the wrong direction.

? Investment fees, meanwhile, are not cheap. The state has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in the past several years, Schmitt says, to banks and bankers on Wall Street.

? In a study of 135 public pensions, MOSERS had the seventh-highest investment costs - which Schmitt flatly terms “unacceptable.”

? Past administrations regularly projected investment return rates that were too high. MOSERS missed its assumptions 16 of the past 17 years.

Until someone refutes these numbers, Schmitt holds sway with his argument: Something needs to be done soon or taxpayers in the future will be forced to divert money from critical needs - such as roads and education - to pay for past bad choices.

He proposes three immediate steps: negotiate lower investment fees, cut the overly optimistic assumptions for investment returns, and launch a study of best practices across the country.

The board of MOSERS meets today. It should welcome all ideas for improvement, but especially Schmitt’s well-reasoned ones.


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