MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) _ Pastors urged grieving family and friends to lean on their faith at Saturday’s funeral for a 58-year-old Black man who authorities say was fatally shot by a white Montgomery police officer.
Officer Aaron Smith shot Gregory Gunn in the early hours of Feb. 25, steps from the man’s home, according to police. The death roiled the community, which has a history of police violence dating back decades.
Family and local leaders initially questioned whether the city could conduct an impartial investigation. Investigators subsequently arrested Smith less than a week later and charged him with murder. Gunn family attorney Tyrone Means called Smith’s arrest “progress,” though the family has unanswered questions.
More than 200 mourners paid homage to Gunn at True Divine Baptist Church in Montgomery. The Rev. Herman Calhoun called on the congregation to pray Gunn’s family and also for city officials.
“Greg’s life is not in vain, for look at all of us who he has touched,” Calhoun said. “Greg’s life was a life that has been used by God.”
Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange and County Commission Elton Dean, who met privately on Friday with Gunn’s mother Nellie Ruth Gunn, attended the service.
High school classmates, friends and family members on Saturday described Gunn as a joyful man who was a mentor to his nieces and nephews.
Gunn’s niece says he would give her spending money every time she brought home an `A’ on her report card. She recalled she started doing so well that Gunn rescinded his original offer, but would take her for rides in a prized sports car instead.
“It felt good for him to be proud of me,” she said. “He always made you feel joyful.”
Leon Wilson, provost at Alabama State University, asked the crowd of about 200 mourners to lean on their faith.
“In moments like this it may seem we are pawns in the hands of fate, tossed about in uncertainty,” Wilson said. “But I read a book called the Bible that says otherwise.”
Gunn attended the university, where he studied accounting and pledged the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. His fraternity brothers and nephews served as pallbearers at the service.
Hours earlier, nearly three dozen people marched through the Mobile Heights neighborhood near the Gunn family home, near where he died. Yellow lawns signs reading “Justice for Greg Gunn” lined the street.
Activist Jamel Brown says organizers didn’t want to talk specifically about the case. Brown, 25, who knows the Gunn family, told the crowd that Smith’s arrest was “progress” but the community should still push for justice.
“When you put on a badge and you put on a gun, you are sworn to protect and serve your community,” Brown said, adding it doesn’t give “any legal right to harass the Black community.”
In the early hours of Feb. 25, authorities said, Smith thought Gunn looked “suspicious.” Gunn’s family said he was walking home from a friend’s house when he was shot.
Smith’s attorney said his arrest is a “political witch hunt” meant to appease the community amid a national debate over police violence in minority communities.
“It simply boils down to a political calculation to placate activists, to prevent another Ferguson,” defense attorney Mickey McDermott said Thursday. “That’s just the world we’re living in now.”
An independent autopsy commissioned by the Gunn family revealed the man was shot five times, forensic pathologist Dr. James Lauridson said. The state’s official autopsy has not been released, pending the ongoing investigation.
The quick move to charge a white officer with murder in the shooting of a Black man stood in contrast to Montgomery’s rocky history of police violence.
A cover-up after a deadly police shooting of a black man in 1975 led to the resignation of the mayor, police chief and multiple officers. The city has erected two monuments in memory of the victim, Bernard Whitehurst.