Jury awards more than $2 million to family of pastor killed by narcotics task force

Jonathan Ayers. (Family photo.)
Jonathan Ayers. (Family photo)

There’s some news in the story of Jonathan Ayers, one of the more appalling drug war atrocities in recent years.

Here’s the background:

In September 2009, the young pastor Ayers was ministering to a young woman whom a Georgia drug task force was investigating on drug charges. (She had allegedly sold an undercover officer $50 worth of cocaine.) When task force members saw Ayers alone in the car with the woman, they switched their focus to him. According to Ayers’s lawsuit, the woman was about to be evicted from the motel at which she was staying. Ayers gave her the $23 in his pocket to help cover her rent.

The task force followed Ayers to a convenience store, where he went in to get money from an ATM. When he returned and got into his car they pounced. They pulled up behind him in an unmarked black SUV. Armed agents dressed in street clothes then rushed Ayers’s car. He put his car in reverse and attempted to escape. In the process, he nicked one agent. Another then opened fire, killing him. Ayers told hospital staff was that he thought he was being robbed. His reported last words were, “Who shot me?”

Ayers had no drugs in his car or in his system, and there was no evidence he was using or distributing anything illegal. Still, local law enforcement officials tried to smear him. They first said he was part of their drug investigation all along, then retracted. The woman the police were following initially said in an interview that Ayers was counseling her and helping her kick her drug habit. Later, while facing criminal charges for a separate incident, she changed her story and claimed that Ayers had been paying her for sex.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) reviewed the incident and concluded that the narcotics officers had done nothing wrong. Investigators basically blamed Ayers for his own killing, stating that he (a) should have known the narcotics agents were police, and (b) may have been attempting to flee to avoid embarrassment if it were revealed to the public that he had paid for sex. The police say Ayers should have known the task force agents were law enforcement because of the badges around their neck. Here is what one one of the officers was wearing when he approached Ayerss’ car with a gun:

 

(Image from the Ayers lawsuit.)
(Image from the Ayers lawsuit)

 

Local District Attorney Brian Rickman heaped praise on the GBI, declaring that the agency had “gone to extraordinary lengths” to conduct a fair investigation, adding, “I do not see how anybody could say the process was unfair based on the lengths that they went to.” A Stephens County, Ga., grand jury came to similar conclusions.

But that isn’t the end of the story. Ayers left behind a wife, Abigail, who at the time of his death was pregnant with her first child. She filed a lawsuit and hired her own investigator to look into the shooting. What he found is astonishing. As it turns out, Officer Billy Shane Harrison, the cop who shot Ayers, hadn’t taken the series of firearms training classes required for his certification as a police officer. It gets worse. It turns out that Harrison also had received zero training in the use of lethal force.

He wasn’t authorized to make arrests or to carry a gun. Yet somehow he had been given a position on a narcotics task force, a position that not only gave him a gun but put him in volatile, high-stakes situations where he might be tempted to use it. Abigail Ayers’s lawsuit also alleged that Harrison and Officer Chance Oxner, who initially bought the drugs from the woman Ayers was counseling, had a history of disciplinary problems, including use of illicit drugs.

It also turns out that in 2009, it was Rickman who hired Kyle Bryant, the head of the task force and the man who gave Harrison his job fighting the drug war. The two men were friends (Bryant has since died of natural causes. Rickman was a pallbearer at his funeral). When Rickman hired Bryant, he told the Clayton Tribune, “I put my reputation on this — [he's] as good as you will ever find.” It was Rickman’s grand jury that declined to indict Harrison.

That Harrison was even permitted to wear a badge and carry a gun is bad enough, as is the fact that he was put on the task force. But it’s simply staggering that the investigation by a state police agency into the police killing of an unarmed pastor with no criminal record — one that apparently went to “extraordinary lengths” — would fail to discover Officer Harrison’s lack of training. It should call into question every other GBI investigation of a police shooting, and cast more doubt on the very idea that we should let cops accused of wrongdoing be investigated by other cops.

Last week, a federal jury awarded Abigail Ayers $2.3 million in her lawsuit against Harrison. That sum will likely be paid by taxpayers. But she won’t get it yet. Harrison’s attorney plans to appeal. The figure could still be reduced or overturned entirely. Harrison is no longer a cop. Edwin Wilson, the training officer who lied to investigators about Harrison’s credentials, was charged with a felony and fired. Everyone else involved is still collecting a check from taxpayers. That includes Oxner, the other officer involved in the shooting, Rickman (he was reelected) and the two sheriffs who oversee the task force and whose departments tried to smear Ayers’s reputation (they were reelected, too).

As for Abigail Ayers, she is still a widow. And her son has still never met his father.

 

(Surveillance video of Ayers’ last moments)

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · February 21