BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man nearly three years ago can be prosecuted on a murder charge, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The all-Republican court rejected defense claims that Aaron Cody Smith, 25, is immune from prosecution in the fatal shooting of Greg Gunn, 58, meaning the case can go forward. No trial date is set, and Smith is free on bond.
But the court also granted Smith’s request for a new judge based on claims of possible bias, and the justices said the case should be heard outside the city where the killing occurred.
The officer’s lawyers argued in court that Smith could not get a fair trial in Montgomery, where the shooting received heavy news coverage and sparked demonstrations amid a wave of publicized police shootings nationwide.
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Smith fatally shot Gunn on Feb. 25, 2016 during a confrontation that ensued after he stopped Gunn as he walked through his neighborhood shortly after 3 a.m.
Gunn was walking home from a weekly card game and was shot next door to the house he shared with his mother, friends said. The defense has said Smith stopped Gunn because he thought he was acting suspiciously, and that Gunn fought with the officer before the shooting.
Smith contends he fired in self-defense, but a state investigator has said the officer gave differing versions about what happened the night of the shooting.
While turning away defense arguments that Smith cannot be prosecuted because he was acting lawfully while on the job, the justices agreed with his complaints about Circuit Judge Greg Griffin, who is black and posted comments about the case on Facebook and criticized Smith’s credibility during a public court hearing in 2018.
The court previously refused to make Griffin give up the case, but the justices wrote that his public comment doubting Smith’s credibility “sets this case apart from others.”