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Crawford County’s refusal to prosecute a Black man’s killer has activists pushing for federal review

Handgun illustration, guns
LA Johnson

Crawford County Prosecutor David Smith announced this week he will not charge a white man who fatally shot his unarmed Black neighbor last November.

The man shot Justin King three times on Nov. 3 at their rural Bourbon, Missouri, trailer park. After reviewing security camera footage, the sheriff’s office said that King, 28, forcefully entered the neighbor’s house, damaged TVs and fought the neighbor. The shooter, he said, acted in self-defense.

But civil rights activists say there’s more to the story.

“The video that we saw could not definitively show struggle,” said the Rev. Darryl Gray, a longtime activist who was present during the case, on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “It couldn't even with the FBI trying to brighten it. And so what we're saying is this was not a thorough investigation.”

 A small group of activists led by the Rev. Darryl Gray (center) blocked the intersection of Tucker Boulevard and Market Street in downtown St. Louis to demonstrate in a reaction to the guilty verdict rendered earlier Tuesday in the Derek Chauvin trial. "It ain't over," they chanted.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
A small group of activists led by the Rev. Darryl Gray (center) block a downtown intersection in St. Louis in reaction to Derek Chauvin's guilty verdict.

On Tuesday, the county coroner’s inquest panel, made up of six citizens, found the shooting was justified. The prosecutor, Smith, said that he agreed and that the neighbor killed King in self-defense.

Smith cited Missouri’s “Castle Doctrine,” which gives people broad permission to “use any level of force” to defend themselves, as long as they have “reasonable belief that the aggressor is using or is about to use any level of unlawful force upon them. The law additionally provides that when upon their private property, a defender has no duty to retreat from the aggressor.”

Gray, who is also the pastor of Greater Fairfax Missionary Baptist Church, said evidence does not support a “reasonable belief” in this case. King was friends with the victim (they shared a joint earlier that morning), was unarmed and walked over to his trailer wearing pajama pants. Gray also noted that the sheriff’s office has not revealed a toxicology report for the shooter, only for King.

Gray asserted that the sheriff chose the panel — not the coroner — and that it was made up of people who knew the sheriff personally.

“A farce, a sham of an inquiry and [I] had to sit through it and listen to people basically seemingly justify the shooter versus seeking justice for the person that had been killed,” Gray said.

In response to the prosecutor’s decision, King’s family and the Missouri NAACP have vowed to continue to press for criminal charges, urging the U.S. Attorney’s office to review the case. Gray said the family is also still waiting for the Crawford County prosecutor to hand over the evidence packet to their attorney.

Gray believes King’s death is part of a larger pattern of violence against Black men in rural Missouri, including the deaths of 19-year-old Derontae Martin and 28-year-old Troy Sanders.

“There's a climate of vigilante justice, white man against Black men, and the law is protecting them,” Gray said. “The law is justifying them.”

Civil rights activists urge federal review after death of Justin King, 28, in Crawford County

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.