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Opinion | Sentencing of former Montgomery cop sends an important message

Josh Moon

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A former Montgomery police officer was sentenced on Wednesday to 14 years in prison for the killing an unarmed black man. 

That is important. 

Do not misconstrue what I’m saying, or what I’m going to say, into a statement of joy or satisfaction. There should be none of those feelings, because nothing that happened in this case was good or joyful. Not even the outcome, where appropriate justice was applied. 

The entire thing is sad. 

It was sad from the start, and it never got better. That a guilty man is rightfully going to jail for what he did doesn’t lessen that sadness in any way. 

But the sentence, along with the guilty verdict, handed down to A.C. Smith on Wednesday for shooting and killing Gregory Gunn in his own neighborhood — just steps away from his own front porch — was important. Because it sends a message. 

It sends a message that should have been sent a long time ago. 

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Laws apply to all of us. And every man, regardless of skin color, financial status or living conditions, has rights that must be respected and protected. 

Those were the failings in this case. 

When Smith encountered Gunn walking through his neighborhood on that February night in 2016, Smith didn’t apply the laws equally or honor Gunn’s rights the way he would have had he encountered the exact same scenario in an upscale neighborhood and a white man walking. 

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From the outset, Gunn was treated by Smith as a criminal. 

He ordered him to stop. Ordered him to place his hands on the car for a pat-down. Smith’s own recollections of how he spoke to Gunn, his demeanor towards him, was one of cop-to-criminal, instead of cop-to-law abiding citizen. 

In the midst of that accusatory interaction, Gunn freaked out. He ran. (Which absolutely is NOT a crime.)

Smith chased him. Tackled him. Tasered him. Hit him with a baton. And ultimately shot him five times in the front yard of Gunn’s nextdoor neighbor. 

There wasn’t a single reason for any of it. 

Gunn was walking home from a poker game at neighbor’s house. And he was wearing dark clothing. 

Those were his sins. 

Well, those things along with being black and living in a predominantly black neighborhood. 

From the very moment the shooting happened, you could tell that MPD knew that Smith had crossed the line. You could tell by the response. You could tell by their actions. You could tell by the demeanor of the top brass. 

They started holding press conferences before the sun came up that morning. Before I arrived at the scene that morning at 9 a.m. — I was working for the Montgomery newspaper at the time — the chief had already been there. And they had more press briefings scheduled for later in the day. 

It was bad. And they knew it. 

But that didn’t stop any of the MPD’s top brass — and most of the rank and file officers — from backing Smith. 

When Montgomery District Attorney Daryl Bailey and State Bureau of Investigations officials announced the arrest of Smith on murder charges, there was a widespread threat by Montgomery cops to walk off the job in protest. Former Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange, in a private meeting with cops, agreed to a private, city-lead investigation into the matter — to determine if Smith followed department guidelines — as a means of placating the cops and avoiding a mass walkout. 

Strange also agreed to leave Smith on the MPD payroll long after he was formally indicted by a grand jury, and after a judge ruled there was more than enough evidence for a trial. And after several other court hearings clearly demonstrated that Smith had acted improperly.

Strange wasn’t the only elected official to go to bat for the indicted cop.  

All of the circuit court judges, except one, in Montgomery recused from the case. And the Alabama Supreme Court removed the judge who wouldn’t recuse. 

Then the ALSC, in a move that trashed 100-plus years of precedent, ordered the case moved to a majority-white county, well away from the citizens Smith swore an oath to protect and serve. 

By the time the case went to trial, the black community in Montgomery was convinced there would be no justice. That Smith would be back on the police force by now. 

But that’s not what happened. Instead, he’ll be going to prison for 14 years (pending a likely appeal).  

And that’s important because it sends a message: That even with all of the benefits and advantages that will be offered an indicted cop, there are still good citizens and a system that will, at least on occasion, hold everyone accountable, at least to some degree, for their illegal behavior. And police officers don’t get immunity.  

For some 99 percent of cops in this state, and in Montgomery, that message won’t make the least bit of difference in terms of the way they do the job every day. Because they’re already good men and women who are trying their best to do a hard job, and they’ll never sniff the inside of a courtroom because of their improper actions. 

But for that 1 percent, hopefully, this outcome for Smith will be a wake-up call — or the shove they need into a different line of work. And maybe it will help change the way other cops view and treat the bad actors within their ranks. 

For all the rest of us, it’s a little glimpse of fairness from a system that is far too often very unfair.

 

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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Thieves targeting food stamp recipients via text messages

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Human Resources on Wednesday warned the public that thieves are targeting people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit cards, commonly known as food stamps, through text messages. 

The text messages typically request personal information, including Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and SNAP electronic benefits transfer card or PIN numbers, the department said in a press release.

Some text messages also falsely claim people have been selected to receive food stamps.

“Identity thieves are using new tricks in hopes of catching SNAP recipients off guard during this time of heightened uncertainty,” said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner in a statement. “It is so important to take the precautions necessary to protect your identity, along with the integrity of this vital program. Following these simple but effective tips can greatly reduce your risk of harm.”

DHR recommends these tips to protect against the scam:

  • Never provide personal information to an unfamiliar person or organization.
  • If a text message seems like a scam, delete it. Do not reply. 
  • Do not click on any links in an unexpected text message.
  • Beware that scammers often pressure victims to “act now!”
  • If an offer or claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Do not trust caller ID. Scammers can use “spoofing” technology to disguise their phone numbers.

SNAP recipients who are unsure if a request for information is legitimate should contact their local DHR office at a verified phone number. Contact information is available here.

The Food Assistance Division of DHR administers the SNAP program in Alabama. More information about the program can be found here.

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John Paul Dejnozka, the “Southwest Molester,” dies after testing positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9. (VIA ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS)

John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9 after testing positive for COVID-19, becoming the 21st Alabama inmate to have died after being confirmed to have the disease.

Dejnozka, who was dubbed the “Southwest Molester,” was convicted in 1980 in connection with the assault of at least 18 women in their homes, attacking, torturing and raping some of them, according to news accounts. He was sentenced to 830 years on convictions of two counts of rape, two counts of assault with intent to maim, one count of burglary and assault with intent to ravish, 11 counts of first-degree burglary and one count of second-degree burglary.

Dejnozka, who was serving at the Holman Correctional Facility, was tested for COVID-19 after exhibiting symptoms of the disease, according to a press release from the Alabama Department of Corrections. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment, where he remained until his death.

ADOC also announced that six other inmates at Holman prison and one at Ventress Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19. In total, 393 Alabama inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, of which 45 remain active, according to ADOC. As of Sept. 6 the state had tested 1,886 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates for COVID-19.

There have been 372 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama prison workers, while 340 have since recovered, according to the department. Two workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women died after testing positive for the disease.

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Governor announces grant to aid domestic violence victims amid COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced approval of a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help domestic violence victims access help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence is using the funds to provide direct services and support during COVID-19 for victims of family, domestic and dating violence, Ivey’s office said in a press release.

“The global pandemic has made many aspects of our lives more challenging, including the ability to seek help due to domestic violence,” Ivey said in a statement. “I commend the work of the staff at the coalition who are working every day to help those in need during the additional challenges posed by COVID-19.”

The coalition supports shelters throughout Alabama and operates regional 24-hour crisis telephone lines for victims needing information or seeking to escape violent situations. It also provides training and technical assistance for police and others who encounter domestic violence situations and helps develop public policy to reduce domestic violence and ensure victims receive proper services.

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is administering the grant from funds made available as part of the CARES Act.

“ADECA stands with Gov. Ivey in support of the coalition and other likeminded organizations as they work throughout the state to provide vital help to domestic violence victims,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said in a statement. “The partnership between ADECA and the coalition helps ensure that this level of assistance will continue to be available throughout the state even during a pandemic.”

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Appeals court upholds Lowndes County capital murder conviction

Brandon Moseley

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Twins Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett and their 73-year-old caregiver, Jack Mac Girdner

Attorney General Steve Marshall said this week that the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction of Deandra Marquis Lee on capital murder during a robbery.

Lee, 24, is from Montgomery and was convicted in Lowndes County Circuit Court in October 2018 for the 2012 murders of 9-year-old twins Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett and their 73-year-old caregiver, Jack Girdner.

On Friday, the Court of Criminal Appeals released a decision upholding Lee’s conviction.

On June 3, 2012, Terrye Moorer dropped off her twins, Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett, with Girdner, their caregiver who was also Moorer’s friend from church.

That evening, when Moorer drove to Girdner’s residence to pick up her children, no one was home so Moorer filed a police report. On June 5, 2012, the bodies of Girdner and the two children were found on a dirt road off of Alabama Highway 21 in Lowndes County.

The police determined that Lee was a chief suspect based upon reports that he was seen driving Girdner’s white Mercedes on the day of the murders and the last call made to Girdner’s phone was from a number belonging to Lee’s mother.

Lee’s cousin, Joe Hamilton, testified that on June 3, Lee took Hamilton home in a white Mercedes that had a skateboard and a bag in the back.

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Moorer testified that her children had similar items with them when she left them with Girdner. Lee’s fingerprints were also found inside Girdner’s vehicle.

Lee told several people that he murdered Girdner but not the children.

Curtis Robinson, who was incarcerated with Lee in Autauga County, testified that Lee “went there to commit burglary and it turned to something else.”

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Robinson testified that Lee told him he killed Girdner and the two children.

Lowndes County District Attorney Charlotte Tesmer’s office prosecuted this case and obtained a guilty verdict. Lee was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Lee subsequently sought to have his conviction reversed on appeal.

The Attorney General’s Criminal Appeals Division handled the case during the appeals process, arguing for the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to affirm Lee’s convictions.

Alabama Attorney General Marshall commended Assistant Attorney General John Davis for his successful work on this case and thanked the State Bureau of Investigation and the district attorney and her staff for their valuable assistance in defending the capital murder conviction.

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