Two days ago Montgomery police officer Aaron Smith was arrested for murder after state investigators determined there was enough evidence that the man he shot and killed last week was not a threat to the officer. District Attorney Daryl Bailey stated that the arrest was made because they had determined there was probable cause that the shooting was unlawful.
59-year-old Gregory Gunn was walking home in the early hours of the morning February 25th when Smith, believing him to be suspicious, engaged Gunn in a struggle that left him dead.
Neighbors say that they could hear Gunn calling out for his mother’s help before shots were heard. Gunn was shot multiple times in his neighbor’s yard, steps away from his own home where he lived with his mother. They also allege that Smith did not aid or do anything to assist the victim as he lay dying.
Only law enforcement and state investigators know what story the body camera Smith was wearing tells. Only they have his statements about what happened that night since the authorities will remain tight-lipped until the investigation is completed. From the scant information Montgomery Mayor Todd Stringer released this week, there are already several discrepancies between witness statements and claims made by the MPD.
For one, Police Chief Ernest Finley said over the weekend that Gunn maybe have been armed with a stick or pole. But Colvin Hinson, the neighbor who heard Gunn banging on the door and yelling for him in his front yard, spoke to the Associated Press claiming that the stick was part of a paint roller that he had left in the yard himself.
“He didn’t have anything, other than the cane they was talking about was my paint cane laying right there. Been there two or three weeks,” Hinson said.
The Mayor has said that the body camera Smith wore was turned over to the SBI the day of the shooting and that the MPD will step away from the case entirely until the investigation is complete. With the mayor and police chief’s hands tied, they are facing a public relations nightmare as citizens demand the truth, accountability and police reform.
Both Gregory Gunn and his 23-year-old shooter were the sons of Montgomery law enforcement officers. Smith is the white son of a retired police major father and former cadet mother, while Gunn’s father was one of the first black officers on the force. According to the Associated Press, police officers from the area helped Smith with his $150,000 bail.
Smith’s use of lethal force against a black man who was well-known and liked by the black community bolstered attention to the issue of police brutality, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement which is critical of police violence in minority neighborhoods across the nation.
— TheColoreds (@Black_Intifada) March 2, 2016
The attorney for Gunn’s family, Tyrone Means has taken Smith’s insistence that Gunn was acting suspiciously to task. “Trayvon Martin was a black kid walking in a predominantly white neighborhood, and someone just thought he looked suspicious,” he told the Associated Press. “Greg Gunn was in a community in which he was well-known and well-loved. That’s scary.”
Smith’s lawyer, however, has been making claims that the city is conducting a “witch hunt” to sacrifice a young promising officer to prevent unrest in the city from escalating.
“It simply boils down to a political calculation to placate activists, to prevent another Ferguson,” defense attorney Mickey McDermott said in an interview Thursday. “That’s just the world we’re living in now.”
McDermott also claims that his client’s arrest was unusual and indicates “misuse of process,” since grand juries are typically used to decide whether officers should be charged. The Guardian reported McDermott’s statement allegation that “social media culture” led to Smith being “thrown under the bus.”
According to McDermott, Smith’s attorney, Smith was on a routine patrol, “working alone in a high crime area”. He stopped and questioned Gunn, “who outweighed him considerably.” McDermott said Gunn pushed Smith away and fled, then Smith used his taser multiple times. Then, McDermott said, Gunn “armed himself with a pole. Not some little stick, but a metal pole. He took a body position, crouching and preparing to swing, and the officer used appropriate lethal force.”
McDermott told the Montgomery Advertiser that Smith says he beat Gunn with his baton multiple times and tased him about six times. This may be found to conflict with a lack of marks found on the victim’s body.
Thursday defense attorney Means made a statement that the results for an independent autopsy he had requested on behalf of the family were available. The Montgomery Advertiser reports that the autopsy, performed by forensic pathologist Jim Lauridson revealed that Gunn was hit by five bullets, all on the right side of his body. Lauridson found that Gunn had taken two shoots in the buttocks, two to the chest and one in the right arm, possibly indicating that he had been crouched and shielding himself with his arm.
Lauridson found small bruises and gunshot wounds on the body, but noticed no other injuries.
“I have no reason to believe the (ADF) would be erroneous in their conclusion,” Lauridson said. “The family needs closure. The state is closed-mouthed until the investigation is finished, which could be weeks. The more the community knows, the better it will be.”
Gunn’s mother, Nellie Ruth Gunn, surprised many when she told reporters that she was inviting Officer Smith, her son’s killer, to attend his funeral on Saturday afternoon.
“I want (the officer) to go to church with me,” the grieving mother told CNN. “If it can’t be done, then well done and well good. But God knows and heaven knows.”
“All I want is justice,” she said.
Black community members and Gunn’s family went on record Wednesday saying they were pleased with Smith’s arrest. In the MPD’s first use of lethal force in five years, the arrest of a white officer would have been unheard of in Montgomery’s troubled history with police violence and race.
“I’ve been crying all day,” the victim’s sister Kimberly Gunn told CNN, upset about how the fallout of the shooting would affect Smith’s family. “I lost my brother and now someone else is going to lose a son. It’s just sad.”
On Wednesday Mayor Strange said that the police force is now 45% black, serving a city that is 56% black. The Daily Astorian draws a contrast between decades past and the MPD today.
A cover-up after a deadly police shooting of a black man in 1975 led to the resignation of the mayor, police chief and multiple officers. The city has erected two monuments in memory of the victim, Bernard Whitehurst.
In 1983, months of unrest followed a confrontation in which two plainclothes police officers burst into a home full of funeral mourners believing something suspicious was going on. The mourners turned on the men, saying they didn’t realize they were police.
Some of the 11 people who were arrested later claimed officers beat them during questioning. The mourners were acquitted after contentious trials.
Mayor Strange reminded the city how far Montgomery has come since the Civil Rights Movement before urging the people to be calm and wait for the authorities to handle the investigation. “We believe it is essential for our community and for justice that the light of truth be brought in this case,” the mayor said. “We trusted the process last Thursday, we trusted the process today, and we will trust the process in the future.”
Smith’s preliminary hearing has been scheduled for March 24.