White Alabama Officer Guilty of Manslaughter for Killing Black Man
Written by Choc Thunda on November 23, 2019
Correction: November 22, 2019
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the month Jason Van Dyke was convicted of murder. He was convicted in October 2018, not in January.
An Alabama jury found a white police officer guilty of manslaughter on Friday in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in Montgomery in 2016, the latest case in which an officer has been held to account for using lethal force.
The officer, Aaron Cody Smith, 26, faced a murder charge, but the 12-person jury also had the option of convicting him of manslaughter, which it did after a few hours of deliberation. He resigned from the Montgomery Police Department after the verdict, Capt. Regina Duckett, a spokeswoman, said in an email.
Mr. Smith was patrolling the Mobile Heights neighborhood in February 2016 when he stopped Greg Gunn, who was returning home from a late-night card game. According to Mr. Smith, Mr. Gunn fled midway through the stop-and-frisk encounter.
Mr. Smith chased Mr. Gunn, used his Taser on him three times, struck him with a metal baton and fired seven bullets from his gun. Five hit Mr. Gunn, who died steps from his home.
He later said that Mr. Gunn, 58, fit the description of a black man in dark clothing who had previously run from him in an area where burglaries had been reported. He also said Mr. Gunn tried to strike him with a paint pole during the encounter.
Prosecutors said Mr. Smith’s account had many inconsistencies, including about the struggle that broke out after he patted down Mr. Gunn. Mr. Smith did not turn on his body and dashboard cameras after getting out of his vehicle to stop Mr. Gunn at 3:20 a.m.
“We were very confident in the facts of the case,” Daryl Bailey, the Montgomery County district attorney, said in comments to reporters after leaving the courtroom. Mr. Bailey said his office would ask for the maximum punishment, which is 20 years. Mr. Smith remained in custody after the verdict and his lawyer, Mickey McDermott, said he would appeal.
“He needs to be in the county jail until he goes to prison just like everybody else,” said Mr. Bailey, who said there was no sentencing date yet.
The case created tensions between the city and the district attorney, who criticized the decision to allow Mr. Smith to remain on the payroll for the last three years. But Mr. Bailey reiterated on Friday afternoon that “this is not a conviction against the Montgomery Police Department.”
There have been at least a dozen fatal police shootings in Alabama since 2015, according to a database created by The Washington Post. In February, an officer who killed a 21-year-old black man he had mistaken for a gunman was ultimately not taken to trial.
“This is a tragedy that we must not forget, we must learn from it, and move forward together to do everything in our power to make sure something like this never happens again,” Steven Reed, Montgomery’s mayor, said in a statement.
“Better training could prevent a tragedy and prevent crime in general,” he added, saying he would examine police practices. “One family’s wounds will never be fully healed.”
A national movement for racial justice, Black Lives Matter, was ignited when Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York were killed by white police officers in the summer of 2014. Since then, there have been several more high-profile cases across the country in which a black man was killed by a white officer.
Jason Van Dyke, a Chicago officer, was sentenced to seven years in prison in January for murdering Laquan McDonald. Last month, Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years after murdering Botham Jean in his Dallas apartment. Ms. Guyger was off duty at the time of the shooting.
Eight judges had recused themselves in the case, which was relocated from Montgomery, where protests broke out after the shooting, to Ozark, about 85 miles southeast, in the majority-white Dale County. There had been concerns that news media coverage of the case could taint the pool of jurors.
“They brought this case to a very conservative county, expecting a different outcome,” Franklin Gunn, Mr. Gunn’s brother, said after the verdict was read. “But I believe that we have seen the best of Alabama today. One bad apple in a bunch has been weeded out.”
Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.