Opening arguments in the murder trial of a white Alabama police officer who shot an unarmed black man began Tuesday, after a tortuous path to court that included the recusal of eight judges and an order to move the trial from a majority-black city to a predominantly white rural area.
The officer, Aaron Cody Smith of the Montgomery Police Department, 26, faces murder charges in the killing of Greg Gunn during a stop-and-frisk in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2016.
The many twists and turns in the case in some ways reflect the heightened sensitivities around police shootings in the United States, especially those in which race may be a factor. Concerns that statewide media coverage may have tainted prospective jurors prompted the relocation of the case, which was rescheduled several times.
Three of the eight judges who recused themselves cited personal and professional conflicts of interest. Three others gave no explanation.
One stepped down from the bench, and another was ordered by the Alabama Supreme Court to recuse himself because of social media posts he had shared after the shooting. The court ultimately selected a retired Dale County judge, Philip Ben McLauchlin, to preside over the case.
“Recusals are not unusual when judges feel as if they cannot be unbiased in a situation,” said Jenny Carroll, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law. “What is unusual is we get this many recusals for this many people.”
Gunn, 58, was walking home from a late-night card game in February 2016 when he was stopped by Smith. The officer later said Gunn looked like someone who had run from him the week before — “dark clothing, black male” — after reports of burglaries in the area.
Smith did not switch on his body and dashboard cameras after getting out of his vehicle at roughly 3:20 a.m.
According to Smith, Gunn fled midway through the encounter. The officer gave chase, used a stun weapon on Gunn three times and beat him with a metal baton before firing his gun seven times. Five of the bullets hit Gunn, who was crying out to his neighbor for help. He died steps away from his home.
After the shooting, protests erupted across Montgomery.
Smith cited Alabama’s Stand Your Ground law — the first time an officer in the state used it as a defense. But questions soon swirled about the consistency of his statements to authorities.
In his first interview, conducted less than four hours after the shooting, Smith said he and Gunn had struggled before he gave chase. In another interview days later, the officer did not mention a struggle and later added that Gunn had tried to strike him with a paint roller.
Smith’s lawyers said the interviews had not been conducted properly, which was why there were discrepancies in his accounts. They also argued for a change of venue, citing potential juror bias because of widespread news coverage around the case.
Initially, their requests were denied, but early this year the state Supreme Court stepped in. The trial was moved from Montgomery to the rural city of Ozark, Alabama, in Dale County, roughly 80 miles south of where the shooting occurred.
Nearly 70% of Dale County residents are white and 19% are black, according to census data. In Montgomery, the population is 32% white and 60% black.
Smith is now facing trial against a majority-white jury; four of the 14 jurors are black. Six are women and eight are men.
Carroll said it was hard not to raise questions about what effect moving the trial would have, “given that at least part of the argument is that race is an issue in this case.”
But others acknowledged the difficulty of ensuring a fair trial in politically charged and highly publicized cases like police shootings of black men.
“In a case like this where they’re actually going after media coverage, it’s a hard position the lawyers are in,” said Fred H. Cate, a professor at Indiana University who has researched juror impartiality in the age of mass media.
Pretrial publicity is not uncommon in trials, he added, but what he described as “pervasive” coverage can turn a case into a trial by media.
Jurors face several questions about their prior knowledge of a case, their attitudes toward the police and the credibility of media coverage. “It’s very hard to ask about media coverage without reinforcing the bias at the same time,” Professor Cate said.
Moving the case to a farther county appeared to have eased the process somewhat. Juror selection began Monday, and by Tuesday morning, a full jury was ready to hear opening arguments.
Prosecutors on Tuesday said that autopsy photos showed that Smith had beaten Gunn in the back of the head with a baton, splitting his head open. That contradicted Smith’s statement, in which he said he had used the baton only on Gunn’s arms and legs.
On the witness stand, two officers who responded to the scene said Smith had been “distraught” and “close to hyperventilating” when they found him. Later, both the prosecutor and the defense agreed that Gunn had cocaine in his system when he died.
Smith, who is still employed by the Police Department but is on paid administrative leave, had said during pretrial hearings that he had no reason to be “suspicious” of Gunn.
Criminal charges of police officers involved in fatal shootings are rare. Since 2005, 35 police officers have been convicted of a crime related to an on-duty fatal shooting, according to the Police Integrity Research Group.
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