Georgia Cop Owes Millions for Killing Pastor
(CN) - An undercover narcotics officer who used unreasonable deadly force owes a widow nearly $2.5 million for the 2009 killing of a Baptist pastor, a federal judge ruled.
Billy Shane Harrison had been undercover with the Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression team on the night of the shooting, Sept. 1, 2009.
Other members of Harrison's unit had seen Jonathan Ayers "in the presence of" a woman they were investigating on the night of the shooting, and, "by happenstance," saw Ayers later enter a gas station in Toccoa, Ga., where he got some cash from an ATM.
Plainclothes officers descended on the 28-year-old pastor of Shoals Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Ga., when got back in his car and tried to drive away.
Ayers' widow, Abigail, claimed in a 2010 complaint that nothing but the badge Harrison wore around his neck indicated his police affiliation.
Indeed, the badge "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," Abigail said.
After Ayers tried to drive past the descending officers, Harrison shot and killed him.
A federal jury in Gainesville, Ga., said a reasonable officer would have realized that Ayers' actions implied he was a frightened citizen attempting to flee a dangerous situation.
Though Harrison claimed that he saw Ayers drive into a fellow officer, the jury found that Harrison did not fire until after his comrade had come from behind Ayers' car, clearly uninjured.
The jury ultimately returned a $2.3 million verdict, but U.S. District Judge Richard Story reduced that figure in April. In upholding most of the judgment, however, Story found it unreasonable for Harrison to think "that Ayers posed an imminent threat of serious harm or that deadly force was necessary to prevent his escape."
Story granted Ayers' widow attorneys' fees and litigation expenses, as well as judgment and a supersedeas bond, on Friday.
"The court finds that appointment of plaintiff as the representative of her husband's estate was an essential part of the enforcement of his federal civil rights and a necessary part of the litigation," the 18-page ruling states. "Therefore, the court concludes that this time is compensable."
Delays in the proceedings do not, however, support augmenting the attorneys' fees.
"The court recognizes that the case has taken an inordinate length of time and factored that into the earlier calculations," Story wrote. "But the court does not find defendant unjustifiably caused delay in the case. For example, the defense succeeded on significant issues raised in the interlocutory appeal. Thus, the decision to appeal was clearly not unjustified. Plaintiff also faults defendant for delay based on his reliance on faulty evidence. However, regardless of the evidence with which plaintiff takes issue, defendant has asserted and likely will continue to assert an immunity defense that turns on close factual issues that defendant was not unjustified in wanting to have a jury pass upon. Therefore, the court concludes that an adjustment based on delay is not warranted."
Harrison owes nearly $711,000 in attorneys' fees, and more than $121,000 in expenses, plus a judgment of $1.64 million, for a total of nearly $2.47 million.