Jury awards $2.3 million in pastor’s wrongful death
A police officer cleared of criminal wrongdoing in 2009 has been found liable in a civil lawsuit for the wrongful death of a Southern Baptist preacher he mistook for a criminal.
By Bob Allen
A federal jury has awarded more than $2.3 million to the widow of a Georgia Baptist pastor shot and killed in a botched drug investigation in 2009.
Jurors in U.S. District Court in Gainesville, Ga., determined that Deputy Billy Shane Harrison “intentionally committed acts that violated Jonathan Ayers’ constitutional right not to be subjected to excessive or unreasonable force by a law enforcement officer” when the pastor of Shoal Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Ga., unknowingly wandered into an undercover drug sting on Sept. 1, 2009, in Toccoa, Ga.
The jury awarded Ayers’ widow, Abigail, $35,587 for medical and funeral expenses and $5,000 for pain and mental anguish her husband suffered between the time he was mortally wounded and died later at a local hospital. Jurors assessed $1,264,765 for the economic value of Jonathan Ayers’ life and another $1 million for the “intangible element” lost with his death.
Harrison’s attorney told WNEG News in Toccoa that he will file a motion requesting the court to vacate the verdict based on qualified immunity. If that fails, Buford, Ga., Attorney Terry Williams said, Harrison will appeal.
Ayers, 28, became a person of interest when undercover officers in a multi-county drug task force saw him give a ride to a woman they believed to be waiting to buy drugs from her dealer. Church members later said Ayers had been trying to minister to the woman, urging her to get off drugs and turn her life around.
Officers did not approach Ayers at the time, but took down his license plate number for future reference. Later, Harrison and partner Chance Oxner spotted the car parked at a gas station in downtown Toccoa. They waited for Ayers to emerge from the convenience store, where he withdrew cash from an ATM machine, and returned to his vehicle.
Surveillance video shows the officers suddenly pulled up next to Ayers in an undercover, unmarked Cadillac Escalade. Dressed in plain clothes, the officers jumped out of the vehicle and ran toward Ayers’ car. The pastor accelerated in reverse, and then shifted forward and pulled away.
Harrison claimed he fired shots in self-defense, saying he reasonably believed a fleeing suspect was trying to use his car as a weapon to run over both him and his partner. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation looked into the incident, and a grand jury found Harris’ use of lethal force “legally justifiable based upon his objectively reasonable belief that such use of force was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or others.”
Abigail Ayers, acting both as Ayers’ surviving spouse and administratrix of his estate, filed a civil lawsuit March 15, 2010, claiming that “without legal cause or excuse,” Harrison and fellow officers “were in the process of unreasonably seizing the decedent and while unreasonably violating his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
“At the time of the events alleged herein, Defendants Oxner ... and Harrison were dressed in such a manner as to convince unsuspecting members of the public that they were not police officers but were instead drug dealers and/or criminals since this was part of their undercover role,” the lawsuit alleged. “Additionally, Defendants Oxner and Harrison’s personal appearance and lack of personal grooming (when combined with their manner of dress) would indicate to any reasonable person who saw them that they were not police officers but very likely drug dealers and/or criminals.”
Camouflaged by designs of his T-shirt, the lawsuit says the necklace identifying Harrison as a police officer could have reasonably appeared as a piece of “bling,” or decorative jewelry, especially to a citizen startled by someone brandishing a weapon.
The lawsuit accused the officers of violating proper police procedure by not calling for assistance of a clearly marked police vehicle or backup by a uniformed officer.
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