SAVANNAH — Mothers pushing baby strollers and throngs of young men marched Thursday night to a Savannah police station “demanding justice” for 29-year-old Charles Smith, who was shot and killed Thursday morning by a Savannah police officer while in custody.
Police had arrested Smith on outstanding warrants and put him in a patrol car with his hands cuffed behind his back, GBI spokeswoman Sherry Lang said in a written statement. Smith was able to move his hands to the front of his body and kick out a window of the patrol car, Lang said.
The shooting is under investigation and findings will be turned over to the Eastern Judicial Circuit district attorney’s office, the Associated Press reported. An autopsy for Smith is scheduled Friday at the GBI’s crime lab in Savannah, Lang said.
Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan interim Police Chief Julie Tolbert requested that the GBI conduct the investigation.
According to the AP, Lang said officers noticed that Smith had a gun when he tried exiting the patrol car and he was shot by an officer. A gun was found under Smith’s body and the incident was captured on video, Lang said.
But those who demonstrated Thursday night against the shooting clearly had their doubts. They rallied in front of the downtown precinct as uniformed officers stood by. Among the demonstrators were eyewitnesses, relatives, community activists and area ministers. “We want justice, justice for Mr. D,” they chanted in unison.
Eyewitness Maurice Williams, 27, said he knew Smith from the neighborhood. He said about 11 a.m. he saw Smith in the back of a police car. He stopped to watch it go by when Smith, who was about 6 feet 7 inches tall, kicked out the window, folded his legs out and pushed on the door.
Williams said the officer exited the patrol car as Smith kicked the window a third time. Williams said he heard the officer say, “Do you want to die?” while he shot Smith in the legs.
Williams said he saw Smith, still handcuffed, escape out the window and fall to the ground. He said the officer fired his weapon three more times, striking Smith in the head and back.
Ten-year police department veteran David Jannot has been put on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Julian Miller said in a written statement reported by The Associated Press.
But that didn’t quell the anger and distress sweeping through parts of West Savannah as the eyewitness account crisscrossed through word of mouth and social media. It propelled Carla Lampkin, 42, a mother of two boys, to scream for immediate justice. “I saw his blood right here,” she said, pointing to an area near Augusta Road and Eagle Street.
The blood had been washed away but emotions ran high as the Rev. Dr. Leonard Small demanded that the community stay unified around the issue of police-involved shootings in Savannah and across the nation. He told the crowd that more “of our black boys are being killed by police than were killed by the Klu Klux Klan by rope.”
Small of Litway Baptist Church said he dropped off three eyewitnesses to meet with investigators from the GBI, and he sat in on one of those interviews.
What baffled him, he said, is that while the shooting was being videotaped “nobody saw a gun. … The man holding the camera turned his back and there was a big gun,” Small said.
“I don’t believe it. They didn’t find the gun when he was frisked and put in the police car. It was a big gun.”
Other speakers representing the National Action Network and the Savannah Chapter of the NAACP spoke at the rally. But off in the distance sat Smith’s mother, Penny Nelson, and his aunt Andrina Hardy. They said they appreciated the support but the speakers should focus on what happened to Smith.
“We want to know why he was shot in the head,” Hardy said. “He was handcuffed.”
Smith, who was the father of a toddler and had another child on the way, had served time in prison for stealing a car but “he didn’t sell drugs and he wasn’t a violent person,” Nelson said. “You can see how liked he was. Look at all these people. We want justice for my boy. You couldn’t ask for a better friend.”