On Thursday, Savannah, Georgia, was the site of a familiar scene — an outraged Black community protesting after police shot and killed a 29-year-old Black man, Charles Smith, under questionable circumstances while the man was in custody in the back of a Savannah squad car.
Angry crowds swarmed the Savannah streets as local officials — including Savannah’s African-American mayor, Edna Branch Jackson — pleaded for calm, trying to squelch anything resembling the riots that rocked Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was shot by police last month.
Members of the crowd demanded justice for Smith, and eyewitnesses relayed a sequence of events that differed from the police account — again reminiscent of the divergent accounts after Brown’s killing in Ferguson.
Smith was arrested on outstanding warrants Thursday and placed in a patrol car with his hands cuffed behind his back, according to Sherry Lang, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the statewide agency that took over the investigation at the request of Savannah police.
Lang told The Associated Press that Smith somehow was able to move his hands to the front of his body and kick out a window of the patrol car. At this point, officers claimed to notice that Smith had a gun as he tried to exit the patrol car — even though the officers had presumably checked Smith for weapons before he was handcuffed. So 10-year police department veteran David Jannot proceeded to shoot the man, killing him.
Lang said a gun was found under Smith’s body.
The incident was captured on video by eyewitnesses, Lang confirmed.
Eyewitness Maurice Williams, 27, who knew Smith from the neighborhood, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he saw Smith in the back of a police car about 11 a.m. As he watched it go by, he saw the 6-foot-7 Smith kick out the window, fold his legs out and push on the door. At this point, Williams said he saw the officer exit the car and say “Do you want to die?” while he shot Smith in the legs.
Smith escaped out the window and fell to the ground, at which point the officer fired his weapon into Smith’s head and back.
The Rev. Leonard Small of Litway Baptist Church addressed the angry crowd, according to the AJC, noting that more “of our Black boys are being killed by police than were killed by the Ku Klux Klan by rope.”
Small told the paper he dropped off three eyewitnesses to meet with investigators from the GBI. Small said he sat in one of the interviews and was baffled by how a gun suddenly appeared underneath Smith.
“Nobody saw a gun,” he said. “The man holding the camera turned his back and there was a big gun.”
“I don’t believe it,” he said. “They didn’t find the gun when he was frisked and put in the police car. It was a big gun.”
Smith’s mother, Penny Nelson, and his aunt, Andrina Hardy, told the AJC, “We want to know why he was shot in the head,” Hardy said. “He was handcuffed.”
Nelson said her son was the father of a toddler and had another child on the way. Though she said the 29-year-old had served time in prison for stealing a car, “he didn’t sell drugs and he wasn’t a violent person.”
“You can see how liked he was. Look at all these people,” she said. “We want justice for my boy. You couldn’t ask for a better friend.”
Jannot has been put on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Julian Miller said in a written statement, according to AP.