A white police officer was arrested Wednesday in the killing of a black man last week in Alabama.
Montgomery police officer Aaron Smith was arrested on suspicion of murder in the slaying of Gregory Gunn. The 58-year-old grocer was walking home Feb. 25 from a late-night card game when he was shot several times by the 23-year-old officer.
The officer’s arrest follows several days of protests, including demands from politicians and Gunn’s family that he be arrested.
“I know he was racially profiled,” Franklin Gunn, the dead man’s younger brother, told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “They thought he was a lowlife nothing, walking the street. They didn’t see a man. They didn’t see a black man. They saw somebody who needed to die, and they executed him.”
Prosecutors did not explain what evidence prompted the arrest, saying only that they had probable cause.
“I will do everything in my power to protect and support a police officer who is acting within the law,” said Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey. “I will also use every ounce of my power as district attorney to prosecute a police officer who has acted outside of the law.”
Bailey said it will be up to a grand jury to decide whether Smith will be formally indicted.
The swift arrest of the young officer shocked the city, including Mayor Todd Strange, who had said days earlier that a state investigation could take “weeks.”
Strange looked stunned during a news conference Wednesday, saying he had only learned of the DA’s decision shortly before it was announced.
“In the history of Montgomery, this is not one of our great days,” Strange said, according to the Montgomery Advertiser.
Gunn’s friends and family members said they were satisfied with Smith’s arrest.
“All I want to say is justice be done,” said Nellie Ruth Gunn, the slain man’s 87-year-old mother, according to the Advertiser. “Because there’s one thing about it: God is still in charge.”
But an attorney for Smith claimed that it was neither God nor the law that had taken the reins in the investigation, but rather politics.
Attorney Mickey McDermott told local television station WSFA that his client had been “sacrificed at the altar of political correctness.”
“We have never seen an officer arrested under these types of circumstances,” he said, saying that “normally” an officer would only be placed on administrative leave while a grand jury decided whether to indict. “This is not a law enforcement question. It’s a political question and because of it, the usual procedures have been thrown to the wind and he’s been thrown into jail.”
An attorney for the Gunn family, Tyrone C. Means, conceded that the current debate over police conduct in the country could have factored into the rapid decision to arrest the officer.
“I think it’s a combination of not only the evidence, but also the general debate about the use of deadly force nationwide, the general debate about the use of deadly force with regard to unarmed black men,” he told the New York Times.
Smith quickly posted $150,000 bond thanks to fellow law enforcement officers who support him, McDermott said.
As the officer sat at a table, silently staring at a television camera while gripping his mother’s hand, McDermott sought to portray his client as a good officer who had been betrayed by the city.
“We appreciate the opportunity to show to the public that there is a face to the officer that has been portrayed as a killer in this community by the district attorney’s office, the city and the public,” he said, calling Smith a “highly decorated [officer with] years on the job, working third shift while the rest of us were asleep.”
He denied the accusation that Smith had racially profiled his victim, saying the officer was simply doing his job by patrolling a high-crime area late at night.
McDermott also claimed Smith and his family had received “death threats” in the days since the shooting.
“There are Facebook postings with wanted posters for this young man’s life,” McDermott said. “This is a Montgomery police officer who has put his life on the line for these citizens for years and his payback is no protection by the city or the county for him or his family. We have a Montgomery police officer who people are publicly Facebooking, calling for his murder.”
McDermott said blame for the shooting lay not on Smith but on the dead man.
“We believe the evidence will show that Mr. Gunn was not just innocently walking home,” he told WSFA. “Mr. Gunn chose to run from a Montgomery police officer during a field investigation, and he fought with this officer for a great length of time. … [He] ran and this officer pursued him, and Mr. Gunn turned violent. Mr. Gunn used force against an officer.
“We understand that Mr. Gunn’s life has ended, but Mr. Gunn chose for his life to end that night, and the facts will prove that.”
Few details about the night have been publicly confirmed. It’s still unclear, for instance, how many times Smith fired his weapon, where Gunn was wounded and whether other officers were involved. City officials and Smith’s attorney have said the officer was alone, but Gunn’s family and at least one neighbor claim multiple officers were present.
That vacuum has been filled rapidly by rumor and emotional statements from all sides.
Police initially claimed that Gunn was holding what appeared to be a weapon when shot, although the object turned out to be a collapsible painting stick.
Gunn’s family has said that is untrue, though.
“He was not carrying a painter’s stick,” Franklin Gunn told The Post. “I do know the painter’s stick is a lie, and they know it’s a lie.”
In an interview with the Advertiser, McDermott provided more details on his client’s version of what happened that night.
Smith stopped Gunn and began a routine search when Gunn “broke and ran, and Officer Smith gave chase,” the attorney told the newspaper. The two then fought, with Smith using his Taser on Gunn six times and hitting Gunn with his baton, McDermott said.
“After all of that, Mr. Gunn picked up a weapon and turned toward [Smith],” the attorney claimed. “He had no choice at that point but to use his firearm to protect himself.”
But Bailey, the prosecutor, said that wasn’t true.
Smith “did have a choice,” he told the Advertiser. “Why did any of that happen — that’s the crux of the matter.”
It’s also unclear whether there is video footage of the incident. Protesters say they fear the incident wasn’t recorded or that the footage was erased, but the mayor said all evidence had been turned over to state investigators handling the case.
Bailey also took time Wednesday to address “rumors” roiling the community.
“I can assure you that most of the things you have heard reported by the news and on social media are completely untrue,” he said. “The facts will come out in the court of law.”
Strange, who was angrily confronted by Franklin Gunn during a news conference Monday, pointed to Smith’s arrest as proof that his promise of a “transparent” investigation had been fulfilled.
“We said from the outset that we would follow the facts where they led us,” he said Wednesday. “We believe that it is essential for our community and for justice that the light of truth be brought in this case, as in every case. We trusted the process last Thursday. We trust the process today. And we will trust the process in the future.”
Nellie Gunn appeared more conflicted over Smith’s arrest.
“She can’t be happy, because she lost a son,” Means, her attorney, told the Times. “She’s happy that there appears to be some responsibility that’s being manifested, but that’s not the whole deal.”
The 87-year-old didn’t seem to place too much faith in the judicial system solving her son’s killing.
“Heaven knows what may have happened,” she said to chants of “Amen” from those around her Wednesday. “Man may not know.”
Nellie Gunn also said she had an unorthodox request, one that hinted at reconciliation in a city once again riven by racial tension 60 years after the Montgomery bus boycott.
“I want both of those officers who were there … when my son was killed, I want both of those officers to go to church with me,” she said.