After a reportedly contentious hearing Thursday morning, black Alabama Judge Greg Griffin denied a motion filed Monday by defense attorneys for white Montgomery, Ala., Police Officer Aaron Smith requesting that Griffin recuse himself from Smith’s murder trial, AL.com reports.
Smith, who is white, is charged with murder in the death of 58-year-old Gregory Gunn, a black man walking home after work on Feb. 25, 2016.
After a brief encounter, Gunn was stunned, beaten with a baton and shot five times. Smith, then 23, claimed that he tried to de-escalate the situation before shooting Gunn.
Smith was charged with murder less than a week later.
In a Facebook post two weeks after Gunn’s death, but before he was assigned the case, Griffin discussed being stopped by police in his own neighborhood for walking while black.
The officers were allegedly looking for a black suspect carrying a crowbar.
“It was aggravating to be detained when the only thing I was guilty of was being a black man walking down the street in his neighborhood with a stick in his hand,” Griffin said of the disturbing encounter, which happened on his morning walk.
According to the defense’s motion, the circumstances were “eerily similar” to Smith’s case and would pose a conflict for Griffin. They wrote that Griffin had “been subjected to and spoke out against the same actions that will weigh heavily in the determination of Mr. Smith’s guilt or innocence.”
Griffin made it clear that he would not be recusing himself—as multiple judges had done before him for various reasons—and that the defense was wrong for trying to use his blackness to suggest that he wouldn’t do his job fairly.
“This is not a stop-and-search case,” Griffin said. “This is a murder case.” Griffin also said that the officer who stopped him was black, the Montgomery Advertiser reports.
“You brought race in here,” Griffin told Smith’s lawyer Roianne Conner. “I’m a black judge. I can take this black robe off, but I can’t take off this black skin. I live in west Montgomery. I live in the hood. Should I recuse myself from every criminal case that has happened on the west side?”
“He took it very personally,” Conner said.
The Death of Gregory Gunn
Montgomery Police Officer Aaron Smith is charged with murder in the Feb. 25, 2016, death of Gregory Gunn, 58, a black man who was attempting to walk home without being killed by police.
According to Gunn’s family, he was walking home from a neighbor’s house—where he had gone to play cards after getting off work from a local grocery store—when Smith approached him.
According to Montgomery Police Chief Ernest N. Finley, Smith spotted Gunn “in an area of the city which had been the subject of a rash of burglaries and is generally known as a high-crime area” and initiated a “field interview.”
In other words, Smith saw a black man walking and thought he fit the description of a criminal. In a lawsuit filed by Gunn’s family last summer, they insisted that Gunn was unarmed and that Smith had no reason to stop or talk to him at all.
According to testimony from a state investigator during a preliminary hearing in March, Smith hit Gunn three times with a stun gun, beat him with a baton and shot him five times.
Smith fired his weapon seven times.
Read more about the case from AL.com:
A state investigator testified at the preliminary hearing that Smith told them two versions of what happened that night. In one version Smith told investigators that during the confrontation Gunn picked up a long pole used for a paint roller and swung it at him.
In the other version Smith wasn’t sure if Gunn had swung a pole at him, the investigator stated. The pole also did not have Gunn’s fingerprints on it, the investigator testified.
Gunn was still clutching a black baseball cap in one hand when investigators arrived at the scene. A paint roller was off to one side.
Smith did not turn on his body camera, and the dashboard camera in his police cruiser was allegedly not operating.
Smith was arrested and charged with murder less than a week after Gunn’s killing. He was released after police officers from across the state helped him post his $150,000 bail.
Smith’s lawyer, and former police officer, Mickey McDermott called Smith’s arrest a “political witch hunt” and said that the Montgomery Police Department had “sold out a good officer” who is the second generation of law enforcement in his family.
“This is on the back of a 23-year-old police officer working by himself in a high crime area, with a larger man who ran,” McDermott said after Smith’s arrest. “We’re sorry for the loss of this man, but he brought it on himself.”
Gunn is the son of one of Montgomery’s first black police officers, but McDermott didn’t mention that as he went on to implicate the Movement for Black Lives in Smith’s arrest.
“Because of this social media culture that we’re living in, [Smith] was thrown under the bus,” McDermott said. “I assure you we are going to stop that bus.”
The case has exploded throughout the Montgomery community, which is 57 percent black. With the city’s long history of white supremacist and state-sanctioned violence, mistrust of law enforcement is justifiably high. McDermott said that Smith’s arrest was also a calculated move to circumvent civil unrest.
“[Police] have a duty to protect the public from itself sometimes,” said McDermott.
Smith’s lawyers argued in December that the trial should be moved to another county because Montgomery had become “infested with racial prejudice and hatred” toward Smith. That motion was also denied. The defense further claimed that race had been used against him as “ammunition,” the New York Times reports.
But it is Smith’s ammunition that left a man dead—a man simply trying to get home to his family.
Smith’s lawyers are preparing to challenge Griffin’s decision not to recuse himself in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, the New York Times reports.
As it stands right now, though, when Smith’s still-unscheduled murder trial begins, Judge Greg Griffin will be presiding.