Former Montgomery police officer Aaron Smith gets 14 years in prison for death of Gregory Gunn

Gregory Gunn

Gregory Gunn

Reprinted from the Montgomery Advertiser

Former Montgomery police officer Aaron Cody Smith was sentenced on Wednesday to 14 years in an Alabama prison.

Smith faced murder charges in the shooting death of Gregory Gunn, who Smith chased, tased and beat in a west Montgomery neighborhood in the early hours of Feb. 25, 2016, before he was fatally shot.

A Dale County jury in November ultimately found Smith guilty of manslaughter, a lesser charge, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years.

Jurors deliberated for just a few hours after Smith’s four-day trial.

At trial, Smith’s defense argued the cop feared for his life as a solo, young officer in a “high-crime” area, and that Gunn armed himself with a paint pole from a neighbor’s porch, leading Smith to shoot him seven times.

Prosecutors argued Smith, with no legal justification, escalated a consensual stop with Gunn to deadly force, shooting and killing the 58-year-old just feet away from the home he lived in with his mother.

Hours after the verdict, 26-year-old Smith resigned from the Montgomery Police Department, where he remained on administrative leave during his case’s winding and fitful road to trial.

Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey said in November he “disagreed” with the city’s decision to keep him on paid staff for the nearly four years he was accused of murder.

Over two months after Smith’s conviction, his family, Gunn’s family, reporters, elected officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys gathered in a Montgomery County courtroom to hear the former officer’s fate.

Smith, once the courtroom was full, was announced by the jingle of his wrist shackles before he walked through a side door. Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black tie, Smith took his seat with his head down.

The hearing began with Gunn’s sister, Kimberly Gunn, giving a tear-filled statement about what her brother meant to her.

“My brother meant a lot to me,” Gunn said. “He showed me that a single mother with no education could be something. He helped me make all the right decisions in life, because there were times I wanted to give up. I wanted to take the easy way out. He said I could do it. He made a difference in my life.”

Franklin and Kenneth Gunn, Greg’s brothers, spoke next, echoing Kimberly.

“My brother stepped up to the plate,” Kenneth Gunn said. “My brother fed us. I ate because of my brother. He carried us through life. He stepped in when our father was not there.”

Chief Deputy District Attorney Lloria James called on the judge to sentence Smith based on the criminal statute rather than the sentencing guidelines.

“The jury has spoken, 12 people unanimously, called a police officer a killer. We have to hold him at the highest accountability,” James said.

Attorney Mickey McDermott, representing Smith, said by nature of his client’s conviction that he was in fact being held accountable. McDermott argued for a split sentence, his client to serve only 18 months in prison.

Smith read a statement from a prepared letter.

“There are no good words at today’s hearing where both sides will be satisfied,” Smith said. “Not only has this been a roller coaster for myself but for the Gunn family as well. I know an apology is not good enough for you all, but I truly am sorry for your loss.”

Smith’s statement continued for about another two minutes, during which he talked about the impact the incident had on himself and his family.

“I struggle with having to take a life seconds after the shots were fired and I still struggle today,” he said. It’s not easy on me and please don’t think I was able to just move on like it never happened. It’s on my mind always.”

After both the defense and state concluded their comments, the judge asked everyone to approach the bench. Those in the audience sat up straight in their seats, leaned forward and all sounds of fidgeting were quieted.

The judge gave a brief recap of the events that led to Wednesday’s hearing. Everyone in the audience slumped back, apparently uncomfortable with the delay.

Then the judge looked Smith in the eyes.

“The court sentences the defendant to 14 years in the state penitentiary,” he said.

There was no reaction from anyone in the courtroom upon the news.

McDermott, following the hearing, said he had the paperwork drafted for an appeal and expected it to be filed electronically by the end of the day. The basis of the appeal would concern “a conspiracy theory” that McDermott says District Attorney Daryl Bailey proffered in closing arguments of the trial.

“He claimed that there appears to be a conspiracy to stage or alter the crime scene by police officers who arrived on the scene,” the attorney said. “Now, we didn’t call those police officers as witnesses, the state did. And then the state said that their testimony was flawed and perhaps considered conspiratorial. Anbd if I’m wrong, that’s fine, but that’ll be a manner to closely examine for a new trial and appellate issues.”

Bailey, when asked about McDermott’s assertion, said the trial was clean.

“That’s not an appealable issue. There are no appeal-able issues. There was not one objection, that we could recall, that was made by the defense in this case,” Bailey said. “Most of the evidence, all of the evidence really, was stipulated to that came in. As far as an appealable issue, there are no appealable issues by the fact that they didn’t object to anything during the course of the trial.”

The judge opted to take the issue of an appeal bond for Smith under advisement. McDermott said it was his desire to have Smith remain in the current state of custody, in a county jail, until the issue of a bond is resolved.

“Traditionally when law enforcement officers are placed in DOC, they are highly suspect to being harmed, and as a result police officers are segregated, placed in other facilities where they are lesser known,” McDermott said. “Sometimes their identifies are altered to protect them. This is not the first police officer or law enforcement officer that’s been incarcerated in this state and there is a mechanism to protect them in jail.”