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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. 

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. 

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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. 

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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Crime

Seven inmates, seven workers test positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections on Tuesday said in a statement that seven more prison workers and seven additional inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Four workers and one woman serving at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women all tested positive for coronavirus, according to an ADOC press release. There are 16 confirmed cases among staff at the facility. 

The woman serving at Tutwiler prison continues to be asymptomatic and was tested pre-operation for a scheduled surgery, according to the release, which states she has been moved to “medical isolation” and the dormitory where she was housed has been placed on on level-one quarantine, meaning inmates will be monitored for symptoms and have temperature checks twice daily. 

Other positive test results came back for a worker at Ventress Correctional Facility, another at the Alex City Community Based Facility and Community Work Center and one at the Birmingham Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, according to ADOC. 

Four inmates at the St. Clair Correctional Facility who also tested positive for COVID-19 were living in the same small area within the prison’s infirmary as an inmate who previously tested positive for the virus, according to the release. That living area remains on level-two quarantine, meaning inmates remain there for all daily activities, and the entire infirmary at St. Clair remains on level-one quarantine.

One inmate at the Kilby Correctional Facility and another at the Frank Lee Community Based Facility/Community Work Center also tested positive for  COVID-19. 

The man serving at Kilby prison was housed in the facility’s infirmary, and was transferred to a local hospital after showing symptoms of the virus, where he tested positive, according to ADOC. Kilby’s infirmary has been placed on level-one quarantine.

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The inmate at Frank Lee developed symptoms of COVID-19 and was taken to the Staton Correctional Facility to an area under level-two quarantine, where he subsequently tested positive, according to the department. He was then taken to medical isolation at Kilby prison,  and the facility was placed on level-one quarantine. 

There have been 68 confirmed cases among prison workers in the state, while 17 have since been cleared to return to work. 

Ten of the 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates remain active, according to ADOC. As of Monday the state has tested 176 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates, according to the department.

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Crime

Alabama Democratic Party chair: “Where systemic racism endures there are no winners”

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Chair of the Alabama Democratic Party on Monday called for Alabamians to come together to address systemic racism and inequality in the wake of the death of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. 

“I am angry and I am hurt. Unfortunately, I am not shocked,” said state Representative and  Chair of the Alabama Democratic Party Chris England, in a statement. 

“Inequality pervades every facet of our society. Confronting this truth is difficult, especially for those who have never experienced their race as an issue. For Black people, watching George Floyd be killed on camera felt not only horrifying, but familiar. It felt familiar because we know what it is like to be harassed by an officer or made to feel unwelcome in a certain part of town. We know what it is like for our schools, neighborhoods, and economic concerns to be ignored outright,” England continued. 

“I stand with each person who is fighting for the just and fair treatment of every Alabamian. Until ideologies rooted in racism and hate are confronted head-on, communities of color will suffer. Until we expose the lies keeping us divided, communities who do not experience their race as an issue will continue misdirecting their frustrations, and scapegoat communities of color. Where systemic racism endures there are no winners, only losers. 

“Unity demands justice. I call on every Alabamian, especially people of faith, to be on the frontlines of love and compassion. We have not come this far to only come this far.”

Two days of peaceful protests in Birmingham turned violent early Sunday morning, and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin declared a state of emergency and enacted  a city-wide curfew to prevent a repeat of the rioting that saw numerous business burned and at least two reporters attacked.

Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday announced the authorization of Alabama National Guard members, but said it was no immediate need to activate them.

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Crime

Alabama attorney general signals end to fight over Birmingham’s Confederate monument

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Monday said the city of Birmingham would get a one-time $25,000 fine if city officials remove the Confederate monument in the city’s Linn Park, which, if done, would bring an end to a years-long battle between state lawmakers and local officials in Alabama’s largest city.

The monument was at the epicenter of a riotous protest early Monday morning, following peaceful protests in the city late Sunday over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Rioters attempted unsuccessfully to tear down the monument, and later burned businesses and attacked at least two journalists.

“The Alabama Monuments Preservation Act provides a singular avenue for enforcement — the filing of a civil complaint in pursuit of a fine, which the Alabama Supreme Court has determined to be a one-time assessment of $25,000. The Act authorizes no additional relief,” Marshall said in a statement Monday. 

“Should the City of Birmingham proceed with the removal of the monument in question, based upon multiple conversations I have had today, city leaders understand I will perform the duties assigned to me by the Act to pursue a new civil complaint against the City,” Marshall continued. “In the aftermath of last night’s violent outbreak, I have offered the City of Birmingham the support and resources of my office to restore peace to the City.”

Marshall’s statement came after Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin earlier on Monday said that he planned to remove the Confederate monument and pay a fine rather than witness more chaos.

Woodfin on Monday also declared a state of emergency and a city-wide curfew. 

Following the white supremacist rally in Virginia in 2017, some Birmingham City Council members wanted the Confederate monument in the park torn down. 

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Instead, former Birmingham Mayor William Bell had the monument covered by plywood, and a year later, after Randall Woodfin replaced Bell as mayor, the Alabama Legislature passed a law forbidding the city — and all municipalities in the state — from removing or altering a Confederate monument.

The law imposes a $25,000 fine for each violation. 

Comedian Jermaine “Funnymaine” Johnson on Sunday called for demonstrators to tear down the monument.

Johnson told Al.com on Monday that he hated to see the protest turn violent, and said he never encouraged violence but does still call for the monument’s removal. 

“If you think I incited violence, you don’t think monuments like this and the policies behind it haven’t incited violence for decades, you just need to think again,” Johnson told Al.com.

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Crime

Birmingham mayor declares emergency, city-wide curfew after violence

Eddie Burkhalter

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Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin on Monday declared a state of emergency and a city-wide curfew after violent protests early Monday morning that saw businesses burned and journalists attacked. 

Birmingham will be under a city-wide curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. beginning Monday evening. Anyone not at home or at work during those hours could be arrested, Woodfin said. The curfew is to remain in effect indefinitely, as city officials monitor the situation, he said. 

“George Floyd is a name that we all know now, not just in the city of Minneapolis, not just in the city of Birmingham, not just in America but the world,” Woodfin said, referencing the killing of Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis that’s sparked protests across the country. 

There were many protestors who worked with the city to conduct peaceful protests in recent days, Woodfin said, but there were also local looters and anarchists bent on causing chaos and damage late Sunday into early Monday. 

“I want you to know that I 100 percent support civil disobedience. That is very different from civil unrest,” Woodfin said. “I support activism and your right to peacefully assemble. I don’t support mobs of people destroying things just because.” 

Woodfin said because of the violence he’s called for a citywide curfew, and plans to have the Thomas Jefferson statue at the Jefferson County Courthouse, which was vandalized Monday morning, removed despite a state law that makes doing so illegal.

He’d rather pay that fine than see continued civil unrest connected to it, he said. 

“That means no more parade or vigils. No more demonstrations,” Woodfin said of the citywide curfew. 

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Woodfin also asked that anyone with video evidence or knowledge about the attack of two journalists early Monday morning to turn that evidence in. 

“You saw innocent people in the media get physically assaulted and did not do anything,” Woodfin said, and asked those who video the violence and looting to call Crime Stoppers at 205-254-7777 and arrange to turn in those videos. 

“These two journalists deserve some form of being made whole, because what happened to them was not right. They didn’t deserve it,” Woodfin said 

Birmingham Police Chief Patric Smith during the press conference said 14 businesses reported burglaries and 13 had extensive damage, and that those numbers are likely to increase as more reports come in. The department is reviewing video from the protests to identify those who committed the crimes, he said. 

“This police department intends to follow up,” Smith said 

“The Birmingham Police Department will be out in force. While we do not want to make arrest. I think you’ve placed us in a position to whereas we will,” Smith said. 

There were also 22 fire calls, 5 of them at commercial buildings, three house fires and  multiple car and dumpster fires, Birmingham Fire Chief Cory Moon said. Twenty-four people were arrested in connection with the protests, Woodfin said. 

“What happened last not will not define the city of Birmingham,” Woodfin said. “How we respond and move forward. How we embrace each other as one community. If we’re going to be for justice, let’s be for justice and let’s cut everything else out.” 

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