Featured photo: Kim Suber, the sister of Marcus Smith, alongside her parents, Mary Smith and George Smith. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
The Greensboro community is calling on city officials to settle with the Smith family after a legal battle that has spanned almost three years.
On Tuesday evening’s city council meeting, a handful of speakers called upon Greensboro city councilmembers to stick to their promise of transparency and to settle the civil lawsuit that has been ongoing since the death of Marcus Deon Smith in September 2018.
“You as our elected officials have the power to do these things, but something is holding you back,” said community member Marcia Foutch. “We are asking you to stop holding back.”
The comments were made in light of a circulating rumor: that the city had offered the Smith family a settlement of $3 million last fall.
According to activist Lewis Pitts, who has been in close contact with the Smith family, at-large councilmember Michelle Kennedy told him that the city council had come to a consensus that they should offer $3 million to the Smith family.
In a text to Triad City Beat, Kennedy clarified by responding, “In October 2020, we reached consensus to make an offer not to exceed $3 million.” In a subsequent text, Kennedy stated, “My understanding is that our attorneys brought a range of $300,000 to $3 million to negotiations at that time.”
In response, Flint Taylor, one of the lawyers representing the Smith family told TCB via a phone call that they had never been offered an amount close to $3 million.
“No such offer has ever been made,” Taylor said. “Nothing even close to that.”
The importance of the $3 million total is paramount because Taylor said that if the family had been offered a settlement anywhere close to that, then negotiations could have continued between the Smith family and the city. Instead, since last fall, the city has spent more than $778,277 in attorney fees to continue the case, according to public records requests.
“If both sides had continued in good faith, if the city had made an offer like that, then there would have been negotiations with a real possibility of a resolution of the case,” Taylor said.
Now, almost three years later, Taylor said that the drawing out of the legal battle between the Smith family and the city is causing stress on the family members, who live in South Carolina and often make the trip to Greensboro.
“For the Smith family, it’s painful that the case has continued to be in the public light,” Taylor said. “It’s painful that the Smith family has to answer unwarranted attacks that the city has made on them. It is painful that the city will not apologize. You can understand that any just settlement in this case would not only include financial compensation but also require an apology to the family and some kind of memorial to Marcus Smith… and that has never happened.”
Reached by email on Tuesday, Greensboro city attorney Chuck Watts replied that there was a confidential settlement conference with Mary Smith last year and that there was “genuine intent to try to find common ground and a way to resolve the case without having to proceed through the litigation process.” He also stated that the discussions had during the mediated settlement conference are “confidential” and making statements about them would be “inappropriate and unfair.”
As far as apologies go, only one city councilmember has publicly stated regret in terms of how the city has handled the Marcus Smith case.
During a city council meeting on April 20, in a remarkable split from precedent and the rest of council, Kennedy apologized for her silence and complicity in the ways in which city council has acted in the Marcus Smith case.
“By sitting here and taking a stance of silence while we know an incredibly broken and racist system continues to exist, makes me complicit,” Kennedy said. “Not just in the death of Marcus Smith, but in the death of every Black man at the hands of that system. The only thing that I can do at this point to try and move back in the direction that my conscience was telling me that I should have stayed in the whole time… calling for an independent investigation even though we are in the midst of litigation.”
Still, those who spoke during the public comments period during Tuesday’s city council meeting said that starting a new investigation was unnecessary and that it was time for the city to settle with the Smith family.
According to Pitts, the family and activists are hoping for a settlement that is close to or similar to other settlements seen throughout the country in other cases in which Black people have been killed at the hands of police.
In March, the city of Minneapolis agreed to pay George Floyd’s family $27 million to settle the civil lawsuit, making it the largest pretrial civil rights settlement ever, according to the AP. In September, the city of Louisville, Ky. paid Breonna Taylor’s family $12 million. In September 2015, Freddie Gray’s family agreed to a $6.4 million settlement with the city of Baltimore after Gray died in police custody. In the case of Philando Castile, the city of St. Anthony, Minn. paid his family $3 million and $800,000 to his girlfriend. And in the case of Tamir Rice, his family was paid $6 million.
Activists, who sometimes refer to Smith as “Greensboro’s George Floyd,” say that a proper settlement won’t bring Smith back but would be a start. Taylor said that it’s a shame that Marcus Smith’s case has been handled so differently from the George Floyd case when the two incidents are eerily similar.
“The cases are similar, but the way the cities have reacted are radically different,” Taylor said. “In Minneapolis they knew they needed to make amends and apologize for that kind of conduct. Here in Greensboro, the opposite has happened; they doubled down. The powers that be in Greensboro continue to defend the… hogtying of Marcus Smith and justify the coverup.”