Black judge refuses to step down from white officer's trial

By Jay Reeves
Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Lawyers for a white Alabama police officer charged with murder in the shooting of a black man are wrongly injecting race into the case, a black judge said late last week when he refused a defense request to step aside over a social media post.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Greg Griffin ruled after a contentious hearing in which the defense for police officer Aaron Cody Smith argued the judge should give up the case because of a Facebook post the judge made before he was assigned the case.

In the post, the judge complained about being stopped by police because he was he was black. Griffin said he lives “in the hood” and “can’t take this black skin off.”

“It comes with the territory,” said Griffin.

Defense attorney Roianne Conner argued she wasn’t claiming that Griffin was biased, only that judicial ethics rules require judges to avoid even “appearances of impropriety.”

Griffin didn’t buy the arguments.

“It troubles me because y’all put race in it,” he said.

Smith, 24, is charged with murder in the shooting death of Greg Gunn, 58, on Feb. 25, 2016. The confrontation began when the officer stopped Gunn, who was walking through his neighborhood shortly after 3 a.m.

Friends said Gunn was walking home from a weekly card game and was shot next-door to the house he shared with his mother.

The defense has said Smith stopped Gunn because he thought he was acting suspiciously, and that Gunn fought with the officer before the shooting.

In a Facebook post two weeks after Gunn’s death but before he was assigned the case, the judge wrote that he had been stopped by officers who claimed he matched the description of a man seen in the area with a crowbar.

The post, which did not mention Gunn’s death, said in part: “It was aggravating to be detained when the only thing I was guilty of was being a black man walking down the street in his neighborhood with a stick in his hand.”

Conner said many of the 239 people who commented on Griffin’s post compared what happened to him to Gunn’s killing, but Griffin rejected the argument.

“This is not a stop-and-search case. This is a murder case,” said Griffin, noting that the officer who first stopped him was black.

The hearing wasn’t the first time the defense has raised race as an issue in the case.

In a motion filed in December asking a court to move the trial outside Montgomery, the defense portrayed the officer as a victim of racial prejudice.

The city, which is about 57 percent black, has been “infested with racial prejudice and hatred” toward Smith because of community leaders and media reports that highlighted the race of those involved, said the motion.

Race has been used as “ammunition” against the white officer, the defense claimed.

Prosecutors are opposing the defense request to move the trial, which is not yet scheduled.