OZARK, AL – A mostly white Alabama jury on Friday convicted a white police officer of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in 2016.
Jurors returned the verdict against Montgomery police officer Aaron Cody Smith on the lesser charge for the shooting death of 58-year-old Gregory Gunn, according to reports from news outlets. Prosecutors had charged Smith with murder.
Smith shot and killed Gunn after he fled during a pat-down. The officer had stopped Gunn for a random stop and frisk as Gunn was walking home around 3 a.m.
Smith had a Bible in front of him at the defense table as jurors walked into the courtroom, and Gunn’s relatives stood as the verdict was read. Some in the courtroom cried.
A deputy led Smith out of the courtroom afterward, and Smith resigned from the Montgomery Police Department. He had been on paid leave since the killing.
“One bad apple in a bunch has been weeded out,” Franklin Gunn, a brother of the dead man, told reporters.
Defense lawyers maintained that Smith fired in self-defense because Gunn was grabbing a painter’s pole from a porch, but prosecutors said Gunn was never a threat to the officer. The jury deliberated for two hours before returning the verdict.
The shooting of the unarmed black man by a white police officer caused protests in Alabama’s capital city and “Justice for Greg Gunn” signs dotted yards in the neighborhood where he was killed. Friends said Gunn was walking home from a weekly card game to the house he shared with his mother when Smith stopped him. He died yards from the home.
During the trial, prosecutors described Smith, 26, as a “bully with a badge” and suggested the crime scene contradicted Smith’s version that Gunn was attacking him with the metal pole.
District Attorney Daryl Bailey told jurors in closing arguments that a crime scene photo shows Gunn dead on the ground with a baseball hat still clenched in one hand, the Montgomery Advertiser reported.
“How in the world do you think he’s picking up this paint roller and doing all this swinging and all this threatening, and still holding his baseball hat in his hand?” Bailey asked.
Bailey told reporters after the verdict that Smith had made conflicting statements about what happened that night
“The other thing that came out is that he shot this guy in the back first. That was the first shot that he made,” Bailey said.
The defense described Smith as a dutiful, young third-generation officer who had been told to keep a close watch on patrol because of a rash of burglaries, and that Gunn, who had cocaine in his system, fought with Smith.
Smith, who took the stand during the trial, stood during much of his testimony as he demonstrated his initial stop with defense attorney Mickey McDermott. Smith said he used a Taser and baton first and said he believed he had a right to fire his weapon when Gunn picked up the pole, WSFA reported.
“I had to stop him,” Smith said. “If he’s brave enough to kill a uniformed police officer — if he takes me out he’s got access to all my weapons on my belt, a running police Tahoe down the street with an AR-15 (semi-automatic rifle) inside.”
Prosecutors had acknowledged Gunn had cocaine in his system, and did run from Smith, but described Smith as the aggressor who used lethal force when it was not necessary.
The trial was moved from mostly black Montgomery to the rural, southeast Alabama town of Ozark, about 85 miles (135 kilometers) away, at the request of the defense because of publicity in the capital city.
Franklin Gunn thanked jurors for the verdict.
“They brought this case to a very conservative county expecting a different outcome, but I believe we have seen the best of Alabama today,” he said.