A Black judge in Alabama has claimed that defense lawyers want him to remove himself from a case due to the color of his skin.
Judge Greg Griffin serves for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, representing Montgomery County. He was tapped to oversee a shooting case involving a white police officer and a Black man.
The debate came about due to a year-and-a-half old incident involving Griffin and the Montgomery Police Department — and Griffin's Facebook post recounting the event.
According to the judge, in April 2016 he was on a morning walk in his neighborhood and had a stick in his hand when police officers stopped and questioned him, with one claiming he was looking for a man who matched Griffin's description. The man in question was Black and walking around with a crowbar.
Griffin posted a photo on his page of himself holding a stick and his explanation of what happened. "I told the officer that the thing in my hand was clearly not a crowbar and walking with a crowbar is not illegal," Griffin wrote, in part. "The officer said no it isn't, but when they get these type calls they have to check things out. I soon told them that I was a Circuit Judge and showed them my badge identifying me as such. Throughout the ordeal the officers were courteous; however, 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 who just happened to be a Montgomery County Circuit Judge in Montgomery, Alabama."
About a week later the judge posted a photo of himself with the Montgomery chief of police and affirmed that they had discussed the incident and were now "ok."
Now, according to attorneys, Griffin's decision to share his story on social media suggests he should step away from what they describe as an "eerily similar" case.
In February 2016 Aaron Smith, who was 23 at the time and working the third shift for the Montgomery Police Department, shot and killed 58-year-old Gregory Gunn, who was walking home from a late night card game with friends, in the Mobile Heights section of Montgomery. Neither Smith's body cam nor dash cam were turned on at the time, so the exact events that took place are unknown, but Smith engaged Gunn because he believed he was acting suspicious, according to the defense. Gunn allegedly obtained an object and swung it at Smith. The men engaged in a struggle, during which Smith reportedly used his Taser and a baton against Gunn before shooting him five times.
Three judges have already recused themselves from the Smith trial. Two did not provide a reason, and one stepped away because his son is employed by the company representing Smith in a federal lawsuit. Last week the Alabama Supreme Court agreed to temporarily put the trial on hold to hear the defense's arguments regarding Griffin.
According to court documents from May, when Griffin was first asked to recuse himself, the judge "has been subjected to and spoke out against the same actions that will weigh heavily on the determination of Smith's guilt or innocence in this matter." The defense added that "it would certainly be in the best interest of all parties involved if there was no doubt of any impropriety or the appearance of the same."
But Griffin in May rejected the similarities, according to the Montgomery Advertiser, which at the time reported Griffin as saying, "This is not a stop-and-search case. This is a murder case," he said.
"You brought race in here," Griffin also reportedly said. "I'm a Black judge. I can take this black robe off, but I can't take off this black skin. I live in west Montgomery. I live in the 'hood. Should I recuse myself from every criminal case that has happened on the west side?"
Roianne Conner, a defense attorney, told the Washington Post that Griffin "was the one that was injecting the race issue in all of this."
"I never made the allegation that I did not want an African American or Black judge," she told the publication.
But Smith's defense team has been invoking race into the case since the charges were brought.
"We believe that these charges were brought to prevent public unrest," Mickey McDermott, another attorney for Smith, told ABC News in March 2016, the time at which Smith was charged.
McDermott made similar comments in an interview with The Guardian.
"This is a misuse of the process," he told the publication. "But because of this social media culture that we're living in, this officer was thrown under the bus. I assure you we are going to stop that bus."
Shootings of unarmed Black men have resulted in protests, marches and demonstrations across the country. Just before Gunn's funeral last year, a peaceful march took place in his honor.
Montgomery's racially charged history extends back to the Civil Rights Movement, during which time activists marched from Selma to Montgomery. Today, Montgomery's population is more than half Black.