At the Dec. 1 virtual meeting of the Greensboro City Council, nine speakers from the public urged the city to settle the ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit over the 2018 police homicide of Marcus Deon Smith, the homeless African-American man fatally hogtied by eight GPD officers during the 2018 North Carolina Folk Festival.
Council responses, particularly those of At-Large Representative Michelle Kennedy and Mayor Nancy Vaughan, were denounced in a Dec. 2 statement from the Smith family and their attorney, Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office of Chicago.
The public comment section of December’s first council meeting began with Anna Fesmire, Co-President of the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, presenting a petition urging the council to “immediately settle the lawsuit stemming from the hogtying homicide of Marcus Smith.”
The comments that provoked today’s denunciation from the Smith family attorney occurred after speaker Marcia Foutch stated that Mary Smith, Marcus’s mother, had asked if Michelle Kennedy, who knew Marcus Smith, “could tell a little bit about who Marcus was.”
Kennedy replied that she had, indeed, known Marcus Smith well. She then alleged that Mary Smith was attempting to keep Marcus’s children out of any settlement.
“It is unconscionable for me that anyone could pretend that Marcus Smith did not have children and that he did not love them, because he did. He talked about them regularly. He was not able to give them the things that he wanted to when he was alive, he was working on a lot of things, but his kids mattered tremendously to him.”
Mayor Nancy Vaughan then described the city of Greensboro as “willing to settle this case,” but said “there is another outstanding matter,” which “surrounds the children of Marcus Deon Smith.”
“There is currently a case pending in superior court on the mothers of those children. They wish to have their children’s interests represented in these discussions. At this time, Mr. and Mrs. Smith are contesting the legitimacy of those children. The city must be sure we are negotiating with the rightful heirs. Either the court will make that decision, or the Smith family must be willing to resolve this deeply personal issue. It would be the goal of council to make sure the Smith children are provided for in any settlement. The city of Greensboro does not wish to spend any more money in attorney’s fees. We would much rather have a fair and reasonable settlement. It’s in the Smith’s hands at this point.
Speaker Gary Kenton then asked Mayor Vaughan “why the suit can’t be settled and then the heirs determined?”
“Quite frankly, at this point,” Vaughan replied, “if the children are legitimated, they may want their own representation, but we are poised for a reasonable and fair settlement.”
The next speaker was Hester Petty of Democracy Greensboro, a longtime critic of the city’s handling of the Smith case.
“What’s stopping you all from paying those children,” Petty asked. “I’m sorry. Michelle, I agree with you, but you have the power to settle this with those children now, without any more expenditures on private lawyers? So, I’m asking all of you, what’s stopping you from paying those children now?”
“If tomorrow, we settle fairly with the three children in this scenario,” Kennedy replied, “you do understand that would not stop the lawsuit that already exists?”
“Then you just pay George and Mary Smith by the actuarial stuff of what they lost,” Petty replied. “This happens in lawsuits all the time. There is a set amount for Marcus’s life, for his parents, for his sister, and for his children.”
“We understand that,” Vaughan said, “and I would say our settlement is well within those guidelines and probably exceeds them.”
“Have you even offered the children any money?” Petty asked. “Have they turned money down?”
“They’re asking to represented in this civil action,” Vaughan said, “and I think we’ve gone probably as deep as we can.”
(Vaughan later acknowledged to YES! Weekly that, as far as she knows, the City has not reached out to either the mothers of Marcus Smith’s children or his son who is now a legal adult, as “that would be improper.”)
“And you could have done that before George and Mary Smith ever filed their lawsuit,” Petty said, “because that lawsuit was filed nine months after Marcus’s death. You knew Marcus’s death was wrong— you knew it was a homicide— you knew he had children. Why didn’t the city offer those children compensation for the loss of their father? Why wait until two years later to get in this big lawsuit battle and waste $400,000 on private lawyers, when you could have settled two years ago?”
“The Smith children’s mothers asked to be included in Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s civil action, and they have declined to include them,” Vaughan said.
The next speaker, retired Civil Rights attorney Lewis Pitts Jr., spoke about how much the City was spending on attorneys and how settlements in recent nationally-publicized police homicide cases have ranged from $4 million to over three times that amount.
He then said that the City had been “misinformed” about the actions of Mary Smith.
“Your lawyers, either inadvertently or intentionally—”
The mayor then interrupted and told him that his time was up. Pitts directed a remark to Kennedy: "Michelle, I urge you to follow up with this. There's been no effort to block—"
At that point, the mayor cut him off again.
The next morning, Pitts gave YES! Weekly the following version of what he had been trying to say when cut off.
“Your lawyers inadvertently or intentionally must have wrongly told you Mary Smith is trying to prevent the children from getting an appropriate part of any jury or settlement award. Nothing is farther from the truth. You need to get those facts correct from the City Attorney and your high-priced legal team because they know better.”
“There’s no denying that Marcus Smith’s death is Greensboro’s George Floyd,” said speaker Margaret Arbuckle, “and for whatever reason, we did not get the national attention for it, but it is exactly the same: an African-American man killed by hands of police on our streets on our streets. We must address the issues of institutional systemic racism that permeate our societal systems and we must seek justice for our children and for those folks who encounter police. Please take action.”
Speaker Casey Thomas reiterated these sentiments.
“Marcus Smith is dead because the Greensboro Police Department killed him. He asked them for help and they killed him— his death was ruled a homicide by the State Medical Examiner. So, essentially, our police murdered him. And from what I can hear, it seems like the City spent $414,000 to avoid having to say, ‘We killed him, he died on our watch, we take responsibility and we’re sorry.' Can any of you just say that? You say you’re willing to settle, but can you say that our police did that, it is unacceptable, that you take responsibility and you’re sorry, just to make it right?”
Council did not respond to this question. Vaughan concluded the portion of the public comments section allotted to speakers on the Smith case with the following statement:
“There is quite a bit of work that has gone into this, and we are committed to a fair and reasonable universal settlement, and in universal, we include the parents and the children. We know that is important step in our community to foster healing.”
Tuesday afternoon, Taylor issued a statement from the Smiths' legal team, which accused Vaughan and the Greensboro City Council of having “publicly spread misinformation about the Marcus Smith case that slanders his mother, Mary Smith, and claims that the City’s purported desire to reach a just and fair settlement is blocked by the question of Marcus Smith’s children.”
The City, through its Mayor and in-house lawyer, Chuck Watts, first publicly raised this issue this past summer and we responded to this patent misrepresentation in August of 2020 in a letter to the City’s lawyers, with a request that the Mayor and the Council be expressly informed.
The statement then quoted an August letter to the city’s attorneys from the Smith legal team, which stated [boldface emphasis added by Taylor]:
Moreover, it is hard to discern how . . . Marcus Smith's life, his pain and suffering, as well as the punitive damages, and attorneys' fees in this case are impacted by whom his legal heirs turn out to be. It will be uncontested that Marcus had a loving mother, father and siblings, and the value of his life will only be enhanced if he had one or more children to live for, regardless of whether or not they are determined to be legal heirs. That being said, we are committed to the proposition that any children of Marcus Smith fairly share in any settlement or judgement with his parents, regardless of how the question of heirship is judicially resolved.
The statement concluded with the following three paragraphs:
This should have put an end to the City’s campaign to slander Mary Smith and blame her for the city’s inaction, yet the Mayor and members of the Council continue to spread misinformation about the heirship issue, apparently because they have once again been misled. Mary Smith has asked the probate court to determine who the heirs are, a guardian ad litem has been appointed by the Court to locate and represent the two minor children, and Mary Smith has promised the City that even if she and Marcus's father are legally determined by the probate court to be the sole heirs, they, to repeat, are committed to the proposition that any children of Marcus Smith fairly share in any settlement or judgement with his parents, regardless of how the question of heirship is judicially resolved.
So, in fact there is nothing standing in the way of the City offering the “just and fair settlement” that the Mayor and council members profess to desire. They have likened Marcus’s case to that of George Floyd’s, and should also have been informed by their lawyers about other similar cases, including the Valenzuela, Gonzalez and Eric Garner cases, that have been resolved in the $7 million to $13 million range.
Contrary to the Mayor’s assertion, the ball is in the City’s court. We stand ready to resume mediation, or negotiations, whether they be private, or, as the city seems more inclined, publicly, in order to entertain a just settlement offer that includes an apology, a memorial, and a just and fair amount that reflects the Mayor and City Council’s public position that Black Lives - - - including that of Marcus Smith - - - Matter.