​Young, white police officer charged with murder of unarmed black man in Alabama


A white police officer was charged with murder on Wednesday after he shot an unarmed black man to death last week.

The officer, 23-year-old Aaron “AC” Smith, stopped Gregory Gunn, 58, while he was walking home around 3 a.m. on February 25. Gunn was returning from a card game when Smith shot him multiple times just steps from his home in Mobile Heights.

Initially, Montgomery Police Chief Ernest Finley suggested that Gunn was holding a painter’s stick that was perceived by Smith as a weapon. The Montgomery Advertiser last week reported what they learned from witnesses and officials about the event:

What started the altercation isn’t clear, but neighbors said a rash of car break-ins a couple of blocks over had been mentioned by police. A “slight struggle,” as Montgomery Police Chief Ernest Finley called it, took place. Then a chase that ended up in the front yard of Colvin Hinson, Gunn’s next-door neighbor. Hinson heard Gunn pounding on his front door, screaming for help and calling out for his mother…several shots were fired. At his news conference later, Finley said the officer saw a weapon on Gunn. It turned out to be a painter’s stick.

Now, it seems, new evidence has emerged that suggests Smith did not believe Gunn to have been carrying a weapon.

It’s not clear what’s changed, but the New York Times notes that the swift charge is a sign that there’s very little case to be made for a justified shooting. From the Times:

Investigators would not discuss what led them to file the murder charge against the officer, Aaron Smith. But city officials on Wednesday afternoon appeared to back away from their initial assertions that Mr. Gunn, whose father was among the city’s first black police officers, had been carrying a stick or another object that could have been perceived as a weapon.

In a press conference, Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey said that since the shooting, evidence has emerged that gave officials sufficient probably cause to place Smith under arrest. Bailey said his department and the State Bureau of Investigations “were in discussions throughout this process and they informed me of their findings and their intentions of making an arrest. We agreed with them.”

Mickey McDermott, a lawyer representing Smith, thinks that his client is being treated unfairly. He said Smith used “appropriate deadly force to protect himself and this community” and that Gunn “lost his life due to his own conduct.” He added that the arrest was “a publicity move to stop protests,” and wondered “Why are we allowing an officer to have to go into hiding out of a fear for his life? Why have they deviated so from the normal protocol?”

An attorney representing the Gunn family, Tyrone Means, doesn’t see it that way. “Trayvon Martin was a black kid walking in a predominantly white neighborhood, and someone just thought he looked suspicious,” he said, adding, “Greg Gunn was in a community in which he was well-known and well-loved. That’s scary.”

Gunn’s death was received with mourning and outrage within the largely black Montgomery neighborhood. The Montgomery Advertiser described the community’s reaction:

Walking around the Mobile Heights neighborhood, talking to neighbors and witnesses and getting a feel for the people, the neighborhood and the climate, it’s fairly obvious that Gunn wasn’t anyone’s first choice to wind up on the bad end of a cop encounter…As the day went on and the stories were told and retold, the anger began to set in. Late Thursday afternoon, investigators from the State Bureau of Investigations, which is charged with determining if Gunn’s shooting was justified, arrived to look over the crime scene. Gunn’s  family kicked them off the property — a sure sign of the hostility that has just begun.

Gunn’s brother gave a heartbreaking account of what witnesses told him about the event:

On Tuesday, protesters reacted to the shooting during a City Council meeting, and the Guardian reports that protests have been popping up throughout the region since the event.

In a statement, Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange vowed that the investigation into Smith’s actions will be transparent. “We will get to the facts. It will be open. It will be transparent, and wherever the facts lead us, that will then tell us what our next steps will be.” He added, “I understand that there is frustration right now. The SBI will not do a quick investigation, they will do a thorough investigation.”

“In the history of Montgomery,” Strange said, “this is not one of our great days.”

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.

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