OP-ED: A little-known police death in North Carolina

Dean A. Strang
Progressive Media Project (TNS)
Police car lights. (Dreamstime/TNS)

On Sept. 8, 2018, during an annual folk music festival in Greensboro, North Carolina, a homeless man named Marcus Deon Smith was high and suffering a mental health crisis. He was wandering in and out of traffic and, according to body-worn camera footage and news reports, obviously having problems.

Eight Greensboro police officers approached him. Smith pleaded to them, “Please help me, sir” and asked to be taken to the hospital. At the request of the police, he got into the back of a squad car to go to the hospital. But then he panicked and began banging his hand and pressing his feet against a door window of the squad car.

Police let Smith out and took him to the ground on his stomach. Then, contrary to a strong, written warning by the manufacturer, officers used a “hobble” device to hogtie Smith face down. Two EMTs and several officers stood by while he wheezed, groaned, and became unconscious.

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With Smith unresponsive, no one attempted resuscitation for two minutes. He was pronounced dead at the hospital soon after. This 38-year old, unarmed Black man had committed no crime.

There was no police officer’s knee on his neck. Rather, this Black man died face down on the street, hogtied by officers with his hands bound to his ankles over his back, in a position too reminiscent of slavery to need further comment.

The initial police press release, approved by the then-chief of police, Wayne Scott, claimed that Smith had “collapsed” in police custody. It omitted the improper hogtying altogether. Nancy Vaughan, the mayor of Greensboro, eventually acknowledged that this press release contained a “lie.”

Since then, both the Greensboro Police Department and various city officials have made frequent public statements about Smith’s death, some entirely truthful and some not.

Smith’s family filed a lawsuit, alleging that the officers’ actions caused his death. The city has not paid Smith’s family a dime and its lawyers are now pursuing the family’s lawyers for their own public statements that have sought to counteract city officials’ misinformation.

In a broad motion for sanctions, contempt proceedings, or both the city’s lawyers argued, in a federal court on May 12, that information discovered in the civil suit should be hidden from the public, regardless of whether the city designated it confidential or even could.

Further, it asks that the Smith family’s lawyers be punished for releasing information learned from their own efforts and pretrial discovery, by which the Smith team have sought to correct the flow of inaccurate claims and outright falsehoods from Greensboro police and city officials. This is a fancy-lawyer version of victim blaming.

More importantly, Greensboro’s efforts to hide a barbaric death at the hands of the police have mostly worked. George Floyd, rightly, is a household name; so, too, is Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and a long list of other Black and brown people who have died at the hands of the police in the last few years alone. But so far, Marcus Smith’s name is almost entirely unknown outside of Greensboro.

That should change. It was more than 40 years after the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis murdered five people in an anti-Klan march in Greensboro that the city finally apologized for the secrecy of its police department in 1979, when police knew of the planned attack and failed to warn marchers.

This similar pattern of Greensboro police — and the city’s secrecy and defiance toward releasing the truth about Smith’s death — should not last another day.

— Dean A. Strang is a criminal defense lawyer in Madison, Wisconsin, and a law professor at Loyola University Chicago. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.