A federal appeals court has upheld a $2.4 million judgment against police who seven years ago fatally shot a Southern Baptist preacher they mistook for a suspected drug dealer.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May that Deputy Billy Shane Harrison violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when he shot and killed 28-year-old Jonathan Ayers, pastor of Shoal Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Ga., in the parking lot of a convenience store on Sept. 1, 2009.
Harrison, part of a multi-county narcotics team working on an undercover drug sting in the North Georgia mountain town of Toccoa, had asked the appeals court to vacate the award granted to the pastor’s widow by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in 2014.
A jury awarded Abigail Ayers $2.3 million, but a judge reduced the amount to $1.64 million after reassessing lost wages. She also received more than $832,000 in legal fees.
Jonathan Ayers wandered into a planned drug sting when he went inside a gas station to withdraw money from an ATM machine.
Harrison and another officer had seen him giving a ride to a woman who had sold drugs to a detective and was waiting for her dealer to deliver more. Church members said Ayers had been ministering to the woman, trying to persuade her to get off drugs and turn her life around.
After Ayers exited the station and returned to his vehicle, surveillance video showed an unmarked Cadillac Escalade pull into view and two officers dressed in plain clothes jump out of the vehicle and rush toward Ayers’ car.
The pastor accelerated in reverse, then shifted forward and sped away. Harrison fired twice at the fleeing vehicle, and one bullet struck Ayers in the abdomen.
Police found Ayers alive and alert. On the way to the hospital he asked who shot him and told medical personnel he ran away because he thought he was being robbed. He died hours later after surgery from massive blood loss.
A grand jury cleared Harrison of any criminal wrongdoing in 2009. Abigail Ayers filed a civil lawsuit in March 2010 claiming incompetent use of deadly force, winning the case four years later in district court.
Harrison argued on appeal the shooting was justified because of qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that allows officials to carry out “discretionary duties” without fear of personal liability, and claimed the lower court erred by allowing the case to go to trial.
The court of appeals disagreed, saying there was sufficient evidence at trial for a jury to find that police violated Ayers’ civil rights protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Interpreting evidence presented at trial “in the light most favorable” to Abigail Ayers, the appeals court determined: “Officer Harrison and his colleagues did not have probable cause to believe that Rev. Ayers was armed or dangerous or involved in drugs when they approached him in the gas station in their unmarked royal blue Cadillac Escalade pickup truck.”
“The Escalade, without warning, partially blocked Rev. Ayers’ car,” they continued. “Officer Harrison (who, like the other officers, was in plain clothes) did not identify himself as a police officer when he got out of the unmarked Escalade and approached Rev. Ayers with his gun drawn.”
“Rev. Ayers tried to back away in reverse because he did not know that Officer Harrison was a law enforcement official and reasonably believed that he was about to be robbed by unknown assailants,” the judges ruled.
“Rev. Ayers did not try to strike or run over any of the officers when he backed up,” the decision continued, and “Officer Chance Oxner was out of any danger when Officer Harrison shot Rev. Ayers.”