- Associated Press - Thursday, March 3, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Officer Aaron Smith is the white son of a retired ranking Montgomery police official, and Gregory Gunn was a black man neighbors knew for working hard and walking everywhere he went.

Their lives intersected early one morning last week, and Gunn lay dead after a hail of gunfire - a shooting that recalled tense times years ago when Montgomery police were continually at odds with the city’s black community.

Now, with Gunn dead amid a national debate over police violence in minority communities, Smith’s lawyer argues the career of an innocent young officer is being sacrificed to quell unrest in a city that doesn’t want a repeat of its past, or fiery protests like those in Ferguson, Missouri.

“It simply boils down to a political calculation to placate activists, to prevent another Ferguson,” defense attorney Mickey McDermott said in an interview Thursday. “That’s just the world we’re living in now.”

Mayor Todd Strange didn’t return a message seeking comment on McDermott’s claims.

But District Attorney Daryl Bailey has said the 23-year-old Smith was arrested because state investigators found probable cause to believe he broke the law when he shot Gunn, 58, six days earlier.

An autopsy showed the man was shot five times, possibly while crouching on the ground shielding himself, a family lawyer said Thursday.

Authorities won’t discuss evidence that led them to charge Smith. McDermott, who served as a Montgomery police officer before going to law school, said the arrest skipped the normal protocol of letting grand juries consider whether to charge officers who use deadly force while on duty.

Smith’s arrest did seem to soothe anger in the black community in Montgomery, a city of 205,000 that is 56 percent black. Relatives and friends gathered at the shooting scene and praised the move within hours after the charges were announced.

“Right is right and wrong is wrong,” said Aaryn Jordan, a nephew of Gunn.

Gunn’s mother, Nellie Ruth Gunn, told reporters she wanted Smith to attend her son’s funeral, set for Saturday.

“All I want is justice,” she said.

Smith, who worked the overnight shift in what McDermott described as a high-crime area, shot and killed Gunn around 3:20 a.m. on Feb. 25, officials said.

Gunn, according to a neighbor, was a laborer who did odd jobs at area businesses, sometimes two at a time, and also cut grass in his neighborhood.

Smith thought Gunn was “suspicious” so he got out of his patrol car and approached the man on foot, police said.

Colvin Hinson said he his wife and their 13-year-old daughter were asleep when Gunn started banging on his front door and calling his name in the middle of the night. Then he heard gunshots.

Opening the door, Hinson saw Gunn dying in the yard, Hinson said. While authorities initially said Gunn had a rod or stick used as a handle on a paint roller, Hinson said the pole belonged to him and had been in the yard for several weeks.

Hinson had known Gunn for years, describing him as a hard-working man who walked everywhere because he had no car.

McDermott said Gunn used “deadly force” on Smith before the officer opened fire, but he wouldn’t go into details. The defense will request a preliminary hearing in which some evidence will come out, he said.

The Gunn family’s attorney, Tyrone Means, said Thursday an independent autopsy revealed Gunn was shot three times in his chest and twice in the buttocks, and at least one shot grazed his right arm.

“We believe Mr. Gunn was shot from his right side while in a crouched, defensive posture,” Means said. “He had thrown up his right arm to protect himself.”

The move to charge a white officer with murder in the shooting of a black man stood in contrast to past episodes of police violence dating back decades in Montgomery.

A cover-up after a deadly police shooting of a black man in 1975 led to the resignation of the mayor, police chief and multiple officers. The city has erected two monuments in memory of the victim, Bernard Whitehurst.

In 1983, months of unrest followed a confrontation in which two plainclothes police officers burst into a home full of funeral mourners believing something suspicious was going on. The mourners turned on the men, saying they didn’t realize they were police.

Some of the 11 people who were arrested later claimed officers beat them during questioning. The mourners were acquitted after contentious trials.

The mayor said Wednesday that the police force now is about 45 percent black and has a black chief who is active in the community and oversees multiple community outreach programs. He urged residents to stay calm and left the legal system work.

“I believe that we have established over the last number of years a better working relationship with this community whether it be Hispanic or whether it be white or whether it be black,” Strange said.


AP writer Melissa Brown contributed to this report.

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