Cop Denied Immunity for 2009 Killing of Pastor
GAINESVILLE, Ga. (CN) - A narcotics officer who fatally shot a Baptist pastor in Georgia persuaded a federal judge to partly reduce the jury-imposed $2.3 million verdict.
On the night of the shooting, Sept. 1, 2009, Billy Shane Harrison had been undercover with the Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression team, according to the 2010 federal complaint.
The officers allegedly saw Jonathan Ayers "in the presence of" a woman they were investigating and then, "by happenstance," later saw Ayers entering a gas station in Toccoa, Ga. Ayers was a pastor of Shoals Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Ga.
After the 28-year-old minister obtained cash from an ATM, got back in his car and tried to drive away, he was startled by plainclothes officers descending on him.
Ayers' wife, Abigail, said the NCIS badge Harrison wore around his neck was the sole indication of his police affiliation but that "it would reasonably appear as a piece of 'bling,' or decorative jewelry and, if seen at all, would very likely not be recognized as identification, particularly if a weapon was being simultaneously pointed at a startled private citizen."
Though Ayers tried to drive past the descending officers, the federal jury in Gainesville said a reasonable officer would have realized that Ayers' actions were consistent with a frightened citizen attempting to flee a dangerous situation.
Harrison, who claimed that he saw Ayers' vehicle make contact with a fellow officer, then fired his weapon at Ayers, killing him.
The jury found that Harrison had fired after the fellow officer had already come from behind Ayers' car and was clearly uninjured.
Facing a $2.3 million verdict, Harrison moved for judgment as a matter of law on the basis of immunity.
U.S. District Judge Richard Story ruled against the motion last week.
"There was evidence to support the jury's finding that defendant could not have reasonably believed that Ayers posed an imminent threat of serious harm or that deadly force was necessary to prevent his escape," the 11-page ruling states. "And because it is clearly established that it is unreasonable for a police officer to use deadly force under such circumstances, defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law based on qualified immunity is denied."
The jury's verdict set $1.2 million for lost wages and another $1.1 million for "intangible" elements, medical expenses and other factors.
Story's ruling sets the economic damages at $606,469.69 after reducing lost earnings "to present cash value based on the full life expectancy of Ayers."
Motions are still pending in the case regarding attorneys' fees and expenses, as well as a supersedeas bond.
Harrison's unit, the Mountain Judicial Circuit NCIS, is a joint venture between the governing bodies of Habersham, Stephens and Rabun counties and the Georgia cities of Alto, Baldwin, Clarkesville, Clayton, Cornelia, Demorest, Dillard, Mount Airy, Mountain City, Sky Valley, Tallulah Falls and Toccoa, according to the complaint.
Finch McCranie attorney Richard Hendrix declined to comment on the case as the judgment is not yet final.