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Former Montgomery cop convicted in shooting of unarmed black man

Josh Moon

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A former Montgomery Police officer was convicted on Friday of manslaughter in the shooting death of an unarmed black man in 2016. 

Aaron Cody Smith is facing a sentence of between 10 and 20 years for shooting and killing Greg Gunn just steps from the home Gunn shared with his mother. Prosecutors had charged Smith with murder but the jury opted to convict Smith of the lesser charge. 

“This defendant gave statement after statement with large facts he would change,” Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey said during a news conference following the verdict. “One thing that came out is that he shot this guy in the back first. That was the first shot that he made.”

Bailey praised the majority-white jury in Dale County, where the case was moved, for issuing the verdict. 

Gunn was walking home in his neighborhood from a late-night poker game when he was stopped by Smith. Gunn ran from Smith during a pat-down, and Smith gave chase, although the former officer admitted that he had no probable cause for stopping or chasing Gunn. 

Smith tackled, tased and hit Gunn across the head with a police baton before ultimately the pair ended up on the front porch of Gunn’s next-door neighbor. There, Smith fired seven rounds, striking Gunn five times, after he claimed Gunn picked up a painter’s pole and swung it at him. 

Bailey noted after the verdict that through it all, Gunn held his baseball cap in his hand, making it impossible for Gunn to have swung the pole. 

Smith also changed his story about the pole — saying at first that Gunn swung it and then later altering that story to say Gunn simply held it in a threatening manner. 

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The case drew national attention, primarily because it was one of the few instances in which a white cop who shot and killed an unarmed black man was arrested for murder. And in this case, Bailey and the State Bureau of Investigation did not wait on a grand jury to indict Smith first, saying they believed the evidence showed a murder had taken place and they were determined to treat the case like all others. 

Bailey made it clear on Friday that he would continue to do, telling reporters that he planned to fight any attempts to grant Smith bail and that he would push for the maximum, 20-year sentence to be imposed.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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“I’ve never felt the fear I felt then:” Demonstrators describe police action at Huntsville protest

Chip Brownlee

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Photo: Sarah Myers

Protesters gathered in Huntsville on Wednesday, first at an NAACP rally against police brutality, and later an unorganized protest downtown near the Madison County courthouse.

The largely peaceful demonstrations ended when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators who refused to disperse after a protest permit expired at 6:30 p.m.

The Huntsville Police chief and Madison County sheriff have said they used appropriate force to disperse an “unauthorized protest against the government.”

Police claim the protest had to be dispersed because “anarchists” from out of state hijacked the gathering and threw rocks and water bottles at police.

“It’s darkness coming on, when we lose the fight,” Chief Mark McMurray said. “We have daylight, we win. It’s 90 minutes. It’s an unauthorized protest against the government. That’s what it is. That’s what anarchists do. This was not NAACP. This was a separate splinter group that took advantage of a peaceful protest and hijacked it to cause anarchy against our government. Their way is to cause damage, set fires, loot, pillage.”

At least 24 people were arrested, all locals from Madison County — 20 of them charged with disorderly conduct. Several people were injured by “less lethal” rubber bullets and tear gas deployed by police. At least two police officers sustained minor injuries and returned to work the next day, the police chief said Thursday.

Below are some accounts and videos from demonstrators at the protest, based on their own recollection of what happened. Their accounts have been edited for length and clarity. This post may be updated with additional perspectives.

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Video: Eddie Swift


Sarah Myers from Huntsville:

We came to the protest in the park initially at around 5:30 p.m. It was so packed we could barely get anywhere near the crowd or speakers, but we came with medical supplies in case people got maced again like they did Monday.

We dispersed our supplies to various people around the park, and then shortly after headed home. At 7:30 p.m., we came back because we saw people posting about how the protest moved to the courthouse square and there was a strong police presence. I wanted to document and make sure people were okay. I had no idea what would happen.

As we approached the square at about 7:30 p.m., all the stairs to the courthouse were barred up and heavily armed, shielded officers wearing gas masks lined the entire perimeter of the courthouse.

I’ve never felt the fear I felt then. I genuinely felt as if I could be shot at any moment for any reason. They were intimidating, smug, snickering amongst themselves as we protested.

I suppose, we were blocking the streets, so we gave them a “reason.” I say that very loosely and sarcastically because the way they responded was in no way appropriate toward civilians — even if we were standing in the street.

I’ve heard about the 6:30 p.m. expiration of the permit — which I guess the NAACP agreed upon — but is public property not always fairground for a protest? Even if we, as a separate group, wanted to continue after 6:30?

Photo: Eddie Swift

Maybe I’m wrong, but what I do know is we were 99 percent peaceful. The majority SHOULD HAVE spoken. The police could have easily taken a knee with us, as many police in many cities have done, and we would have been gone by 8.

But what they did instead was wait for the clock to strike “8” (7:45) and started sounding off loud intense alarm sounds, so I fell back about a block. I’m honestly not even sure on a perfect timeline after that — all hell broke loose, time stretched and warped and still hasn’t really returned to the same.

I cannot get my mind off of that night, the feeling of terror in my own city.

They were trapping us, yet shoving us, there were people screaming blood-curdling screams because of pepper spray or tear gas being sprayed directly into their faces.

Immediately turning around to see a young boy, who looked no older than 17, with a huge hole blown out of his calf and blood covering his entire leg. He was in such shock that you couldn’t even tell anything was wrong until you looked down. We were trying to help this guy, and they still just kept shooting behind us, dropping gas on us, shoving us while we knelt down on the sidewalks, trying to aid people.

We literally just had to take off running for shelter in the parking garage on Jefferson in the middle of helping that guy because there was just constant shots approaching behind us.

Everyone I saw who was shot, was shot with their backs turned to the police. People who were trying to disperse, being maced as they ran by. A medic helping someone on the sidewalk, and police throwing smoke canisters at them.

It was barbaric, unnecessary terrorism. Someone needs to be held accountable for the absolutely uncalled for brutality that happened that night.

Even if someone threw a water bottle or yelled at them, we were unarmed. We were 99 percent peaceful and not participating in antagonizing the police, but when they decided they were over it, they didn’t care who was what or what was what. They started shooting, harassing, arresting, and gassing innocent people who pleaded with them and protested for change.

We left at the point that the riot police began advancing down Jefferson. It just seemed like there was nothing else we could do. They made it clear to leave if you can — or get brutalized one way or another.

I don’t really know what else to say other than I got a glimpse of what a black person goes through everyday … who do you call when its the police that are attacking us?

Warning: Video contains violence and profane language.

Video: Eddie Swift


Dr. Pippa Abston from Huntsville:

I arrived at Big Springs Park at about 4:30 before the start of the protest at 5 p.m. I am pleased to say that multiple medical people and first aid volunteers came. We had at least one EMT. People brought armloads of supplies and water. We had a medical area set up towards the back, and some of us walked through the crowd. I carried a medic sign on a pole.

After the speakers — which I don’t think I can do justice to describing, other than to say extremely inspiring — we were led up the stairs on the side of the park to march. There was chanting. It seemed to me that there were a whole lot more people than on Monday night. The line of marchers really couldn’t move much. We chanted.

Instead of a big march around the square, mainly people seemed to settle in the area in front of the courthouse. Everything I saw appeared peaceful in that area. Again, there were large numbers of police on the courthouse steps. This time they were holding large numbers of wrist ties, indicating to us that they planned to do a lot of arrests, I suppose. We could see people posted on top of the courthouse, and I was told they were snipers, but I couldn’t get a close enough look to verify that.

Suddenly — and again for no discernible reason — police dressed in riot gear lined up along the intersection where Fountain Circle turns into Southside Square. We heard a siren and then once again, unintelligible talking over some kind of sound system. I was roughly opposite the courthouse steps, and none of us could hear them.

Video: Pippa Abston

It turned into that game “operator” that kids play. People were passing along information that they had heard, but it wasn’t the same information. Some said we were supposed to leave in 4 minutes, others said everybody just had to get off the street and onto the sidewalks.

Toward Clinton, which was blocked also on Monday, there was no riot line of police, but there were some police cars, and it wasn’t clear to anyone standing there if that was an exit route. I asked several people if anyone had provided an exit route, as is required, and they said no.

Around that time, some people started coming up to us and reporting that first aid volunteers were being detained and ordered to remove their red cross signs made with tape, on the grounds that they were impersonating doctors. Because of this, the many medical volunteers we had were not identifiable to the crowd.

Several people came to me over the course of the night, because I still had the sign and a red cross on my shirt and backpack. I had put my medical license in with my ID, and I said “let them just try that.” But no one did.

We were also told that police on the courthouse roof were targeting medics — that they were pointing out our position. We were warned by several people to watch out because of that.

A few minutes later, people started passing down the word that they were about to start shooting rubber bullets. So the medical team I was with once again went down the stairs towards Big Spring Park, thinking likely that would be the way folks would flee again.

There was an initial rush of folks running down the stairs again, with some screaming, but this was brief and then people went back up again. We were unsure what to do but decided to stay in the park to be ready for their return. We heard chanting.

Photo: Sarah Myers

After some amount of time, which I did not note because I intentionally left my watch at home, a large crowd of people came screaming, running down those same stairs again into Big Spring Park, being chased by police and we heard shooting of rubber bullets.

We ran also. We heard several large explosions that sounded like bombs. We were told it was tear gas.

Even though it wasn’t really too close to where we were, my eyes did burn.

People passing us said that police had told them we had to leave Big Spring Park, a city park, because it was private property, and that we would be fine if we went across Church Street as long as we didn’t get near businesses.

So a lot of us — maybe 100 or so — walked over there. As we were heading there, we saw a large line of patrol cars with lights and sirens on, coming down Church Street, and we wondered if it was ok after all to go there, but they passed by. We were told they were circling the courthouse.

People milled around on the sidewalk area across near Church Street, which is definitely public property, talking, wondering what was next. Again, we stayed in case we needed to give medical help and also because we had never received any instructions from the police about where to go.

We got word that they were loading up large numbers of police into trucks and coming … to do what, we didn’t know, but we were worried, so we walked further away from Church Street toward the Von Braun Center area.

We saw a line of police advancing down Clinton and onto Monroe Street, and we were worried we were going to get trapped. A large crowd to the left of us were moving past the art museum, and suddenly there were explosions again and what looked like fireworks aimed at the crowd. I was told it was tear gas.

People were running and screaming and several of us were trying to help wash their eyes. These tear gas explosions happened several times. We thought they were trying to drive us to Monroe Street, but we had also seen troopers marching that way, and we didn’t know if we were going to get cornered.

We were still washing people’s eyes. Some people were having intense skin reactions to the gas, burning and redness.

One person had been hit so badly in the eyes that they couldn’t see to find their ride, so they walked with my group back to where we were parked and got a ride with my friends. It seemed like protesters were mostly dispersing from that end of the park. We heard there were continuing protests on Jefferson Street.

I made it home. That was like being in a war, getting shot at, having gas thrown at us. And once again, one of the scariest parts was that it wasn’t clear where to go and be safe from being shot at.

We have to keep showing up for these protests. They are obviously trying to terrorize us into staying home, but we must persist.

The Huntsville police chief is saying that us putting on eye protection and getting out first aid equipment was one of their reasons for gassing and shooting us, because it was a sign we wanted violence.

If I go hiking during hunting season with an orange hat on, am I hoping a hunter will shoot me in the head?

If I lock my car door, am I hoping to have my window broken?

If I wear a mask, am I hoping to get COVID-19?

They had snipers yesterday. If we come wearing bulletproof vests — and no, I don’t own one — are they going to shoot us and say well, look what they made us do?

Could it be that we are aware of their weapons and their history of unprovoked brutality and want to protect ourselves while we exercise our First Amendment rights?

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Alabama Parole and Probation Officers supervising nearly 9,000 violent criminals

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles released a report Thursday that was shared with state legislators and the media this week that shows Alabama’s 300 parole and probation officers are tasked with supervising 8,993 people convicted of violent crimes.

The officers are tasked with supervising more than 27,000 Alabama offenders as well as more than 3,600 offenders from other states who chose to move to Alabama following their incarceration in other states. Those are just the active cases.

There are an additional 22,947 inactive offenders for a total caseload of 50,055.

“The supervision of all these offenders that our officers provide daily is crucial to the safety of Alabamians and we are thankful for the selfless and dedicated work of these law enforcement officers,” said Bureau Director Charlie Graddick in a statement.

Graddick said that the Bureau put nine new officers into the field last week to begin supervising parolees and probationers and hopes to hire up to 138 more officers over the next three years — if the budget allows.

In the session that recently ended, the Legislature cut the bureau’s budget nearly in half.

“We are in need of more officers as we work to reduce caseloads,” Graddick said.

The report shows that 79 percent of the Alabama clients the bureau supervises were granted probation by judges throughout the state.

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Sixteen percent of the Alabama offenders are parolees who were granted release from prison by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Of the 6,078 Alabama parolees being supervised, 58 percent are violent offenders, some requiring much more intensive supervision.

Alabama has historically underfunded and understaffed the aging prison facilities managed by the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is tasked with attempting to safely reintegrate parolees into society as well as to rehabilitate offenders sentenced to probation so that they do not re-offend and have to join the state’s prison population again.

A recent Department of Justice report claimed that Alabama’s prisons are among the most dangerous in the country.

The state has a critical need to increase prison capacity to reduce prison overcrowding and protect the public from crime and violence.

 

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DOJ’s dropping of charges against Flynn may raise question in Siegelman case

Brandon Moseley

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Defenders of former Gov. Don Siegelman suggested that U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s dropping of federal charges against General Michael Flynn raises questions of the prosecution of Siegelman.

Flynn, a retired Lt. General, was President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser. He was investigated under the Logan Act as part of the wider Russian collusion investigation into the 2016 election, when Trump defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

A preeminent scholar in prosecutorial misconduct, Professor Bennett Gershman, has now proclaimed the prosecutors of former governor Siegelman are the ones who should have been charged with a federal crime.

“Yes, the prosecutors should be in jail,” Gershman said. “Of the thousands of prosecutorial misconduct cases I’ve written about, the government’s bad faith described in Stealing our Democracy stands out and may be without parallel.”

“Stealing our Democracy” is Siegelman’s new book. The new book raised more questions of prosecutorial misconduct.

David C. Iglesias is a former Republican U.S. Attorney for New Mexico. He is now an associate professor of Politics and Law at Wheaton College in Illinois.

“If you doubt that politics are the mortal enemy of justice, read Stealing Our Democracy,” Iglesias said. “This is a sobering reminder of the vast powers the federal government has wrongfully used as a sledgehammer to achieve a conviction at any cost. Terrible things happen when you mix politics with prosecutions.”

The White House maintains that the prosecution of Flynn was a political exercise. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany blasted the effort to prosecute Flynn.

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“The FBI exists to investigate crimes. But in the case of Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, it appears that they might have existed to manufacture one,” McEnany said at the White House press briefing. “As the motion filed by the Department of Justice yesterday explained, the FBI set out to interview General Michael Flynn, when they had no predigate [sic] — predicate for any investigation of any crime.”

“Over the past week, we learned, from a handwritten note, the true intent behind the FBI’s investigation of Lieutenant General Michael Flynn,” McEnany explained. “The very day that then-FBI Director Jim Comey sent agents to the White House to interview Flynn, the FBI discussed what their intent was beforehand. This is what they said: “What is our goal? Truth, admission? Or to get him to lie so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” These notes, in addition to other evidence, raise serious questions about the handling of the — of the FBI’s handling of Michael Flynn’s case.”

Siegelman’s supporters maintain that is what happened to the former Governor.

Law Professor John Farmer is the former Dean of Rutgers Law School and seems to agree with Professor Gerhman.

“Don Siegelman’s story is nothing less than an American tragedy,” Farmer wrote. “Understanding the abuses he experienced may well be the first step to ending them and to healing our broken politics.”

Siegelman is the only Democrat to be elected as the Governor of Alabama since 1982’s election of George C. Wallace (D). Siegelman served as Governor from 1999 to 2003. He was narrowly defeated by then-Congressman Bob Riley, R-Ashland, in the 2002 election after just one term as Governor. Siegelman was mulling a run for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States in 2004.

Siegelman claims that he was then targeted by President George W. Bush’s Department of Justice and claims that he was prosecuted on the orders of GOP strategist and top Bush White House political strategist Karl Rove.

Flynn’s guilty plea was overturned and the case against him lifted with the aid of AG William Barr and the Trump Department of Justice after being investigated and prosecuted by Barack H. Obama’s holdovers at the DOJ, whom some Republicans accuse of attempting a legal coup against the incoming Trump officials. Siegelman on the other hand was prosecuted during the 2006 election when he was running to regain the Governor’s mansion. Siegelman, then under a legal cloud, lost the Democratic primary to then Lt. Governor Lucy Baxley (D). Baxley was then trounced by Gov. Riley. Siegelman was convicted by a jury of his peers and his convictions were upheld by the federal court system, spending years in prison until 2017.

Siegelman claims that his new book raises more questions of prosecutorial misconduct in his case.

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Gov. Kay Ivey extends public health emergency, issues COVID-19 lawsuit protections

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday extended the formal “public health emergency” for 60 days, beginning May 13. 

Ivey also issued another proclamation that provides liability protection for businesses and health care providers from being sued over COVID-19 matters if those businesses and health care providers “comply with or reasonably attempt to comply with applicable public health guidance.”

Ivey’s order also states that the emergency liability protections would cover businesses and health care providers unless they show “wanton, reckless, willful or intentional misconduct.” 

“I want to do everything within my authority to protect businesses as Alabama’s economy gets up and running again,” Ivey said in a statement. “As we resume operations, the very last thing a business owner needs to worry about is a frivolous lawsuit from responding to COVID-19. Let me be clear, this in no way shields them from serious misconduct. If someone knowingly abuses the public during a time of crisis, they should be held accountable and prosecuted as such.”

Ivey is to hold a press conference at 11 a.m. to discuss possible changes to her “safer-at-home” order. The new proclamations issued Friday morning are separate from the state’s public health orders.

The existence of the states of emergency simply allows the governor to take extraordinary steps to deal with an emergency situation.

Eighth proclamation summary:

  • The order provides safe harbor to health care providers, businesses, and other entities to encourage “reopening our state.”
  • The order protects health care providers from a frivolous lawsuit based on actions they took or failed to take as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The order protects businesses from frivolous lawsuits when they conduct COVID-19 testing or distribute PPE to help protect people from COVID-19.
  • The order “in no way shields these groups from claims of egregious misconduct. Claims based on egregious misconduct would be allowed to proceed,” according to the governor’s office.

Ninth proclamation summary:

  • One provision allows for probate judges to improve procedures for administering the July 14 primary runoff election.
  • Probate judges would be allowed to reduce the number of poll workers, if necessary. They would also be allowed to conduct poll-worker training remotely.
  • Another provision “cuts red tape for electric co-ops seeking to obtain emergency loans.” This will “help ensure that electrical cops are still able to provide electricity to their members during this public health emergency.”
  • A final provision will extend the formal “public health emergency” for 60 days, beginning May 13.

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