The murder trial for a Montgomery, Alabama, cop who shot and killed a black man was delayed on Friday, after the officer’s lawyers moved to oust the case’s black judge on the grounds that he had once been wrongfully detained by police.
Montgomery Police Officer Aaron Smith is accused of beating, tasing, and fatally shooting 58-year-old Gregory Gunn in February 2016. But the case, which prompted local and national uproar, has been slow on its way to trial, with three judges recusing themselves from the case.
Circuit Court Judge Greg Griffin, the fourth judge assigned to the case, says he’s there to stay. But since May, Smith’s legal team has been trying to force Griffin’s recusal, citing an April Facebook post he wrote about police mistaking him for another black man.
Smith’s legal team says the Facebook post, which Griffin wrote before he was assigned to the case, was improper and disqualifying. Griffin says the defense is trying to use his race to kick him off the bench.
Gunn was walking home from a card game at the end of his late-night shift at a Montgomery grocery store on Feb. 25, 2016, when he crossed paths with Smith, a white, 23-year-old police officer. The exact events of the encounter remain unclear. Smith’s body camera and dashboard camera were turned off. Montgomery police claim Smith stopped Gunn for an impromptu interview about nearby robberies. Smith claimed Gunn picked up a paint roller and swung it at him, although Gunn’s fingerprints were not found on the roller when it was recovered as evidence.
A report by Alabama’s State Bureau of Investigation found that Smith beat Gunn with his police baton, tased him, and fired seven shots at him. Five of those bullets struck Gunn, killing him outside a neighbor’s home.
Smith’s lawyer, former police officer Mickey McDermott blamed social media for the outrage over Gunn’s death. “Because of this social media culture that we’re living in, this officer was thrown under the bus,” McDermott told the Guardian several days after Gunn’s death. “I assure you we are going to stop that bus.”
Now McDermott and his legal team are trying to use Griffin’s social media to boot him from the case.
In April 2016, Griffin posted a picture of himself holding a stick while on a walk in his Montgomery neighborhood. He had just been detained by police, who were looking for a different man, who had been reported carrying a crowbar. Griffin wrote that he showed the officers his Circuit Court badge, and that “the officers were courteous, however, 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.”
In a follow-up several days later, Griffin posted a picture of himself shaking hands with Montgomery’s police chief. “We discussed the incident that occurred on April 13. WE ARE OK!!”
But despite the apparently amicable ending, the incident was far from disappearing. Over the next year, Alabama’s Supreme Court tried three times to find a judge to preside over Smith’s murder trial. All three judges recused themselves, two without stating their reasons, and a third stepping down from the case after he learned that his son worked for a law firm representing Smith against a civil suit by Gunn’s family. In April 2017, Griffin was tapped to oversee the case. It would not take long for Smith’s legal team to find Griffin’s year-old posts about his encounter with Montgomery police.
In a May 16 filing, Smith’s legal team accused Griffin of being unfit to oversee the case, based on his Facebook posts.
Griffin “was so enraged by this incident that [he] wrote several comments pertaining to the same on a social media site proclaiming [his] disgust with the Montgomery Police Department due to its alleged unfair and unjust stop of your honor while simply walking through his own neighborhood,” the filing claimed, describing Griffin’s encounter as “eerily similar” to the events surrounding Gunn’s death.
Griffin declined to recuse himself, stating that the charges against Smith were unrelated to the search Montgomery officers performed on him the previous year. “This is not a stop-and-search case,” Griffin told Smith’s lawyers, the Montgomery Advertiser reported in May. “This is a murder case.”
He went on to argue that Smith’s lawyers were potentially asking him to recuse himself from a wide swathe of cases, based on his race.
“You brought race in here,” Griffin said. “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?”
Griffin remained on the case, which is scheduled to go to trial in October. But in a Friday move, Alabama’s Supreme Court finally agreed to consider Smith’s lawyers’ move to unseat Griffin. Eight of the court’s nine justices ruled to temporarily halt the trial for up to 21 days while they accept briefs from Griffin and Smith on whether Griffin should be allowed to oversee the case.
Hours after the court’s ruling, Griffin was back on Facebook, this time posting a video of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The caption, a King quote, reads like Griffin’s official statement in a case stalled by deep scrutiny into Griffin’s Facebook activity.
“Don’t allow anybody to make you feel like you are nobody,” the caption read.