TOCCOA, Ga. (ABP) — A grand jury has cleared police officers involved in a Sept. 1 shooting that killed a Southern Baptist pastor caught in the middle of a botched drug sting.
An 18-member grand jury in Stephens County in northeast Georgia ruled that the officer who fired two shots that fatally wounded Jonathan Ayers, pastor of Shoal Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Ga., was justified in using lethal force because he reasonably believed he was in physical danger. Ayers was 29.
According to a 1,100-page Georgia Bureau of Investigation report made public after the Dec. 15-18 grand jury probe, undercover officers were in the process of purchasing crack cocaine from a known drug user in hopes of identifying her supplier. The woman reportedly told detectives she didn't have the amount that had been agreed upon, but she would get it later in the day.
Police said they later observed a white male in a red Honda Civic give the woman money. Spotting the vehicle parked outside a gas station and recognizing Ayers as the man they had seen earlier, officers rushed to question him, blocking him in as he started to back out of a parking space.
Officers said they were in plain clothes but wore badges around their necks and identified themselves as police. They ordered him not to put the car in reverse, but Ayers did so anyway and accelerated, making contact with an officer behind the car. He then put the car in drive and accelerated forward, nearly striking Billy Shane Harris, an agent for the Mountain Narcotics Criminal Investigation & Suppression Team.
Harris fired twice at the fleeing vehicle, grazing Ayers on the arm and striking him in the torso. Ayers lost control of his car not far away. From there he was taken to a hospital where he later died from massive blood loss.
Several people working at the hospital told GBI investigators that Ayers told them he didn't know who shot him. He had just gotten $20 from an ATM machine and thought they wanted to rob him. He asked emergency personnel if he was going to make it and told his wife at the hospital to take care of herself and that he did nothing wrong.
Local citizens held several vigils calling for a complete investigation into the police shooting. Friends said Ayers had been ministering to the woman trying to convince her to get off drugs. They said he had given her a ride to the motel where she lived, and was giving her rent money when spotted by narcotics detectives.
District Attorney Brian Rickman enlisted a special prosecutor to review the case file before turning it over to a grand jury. In a letter to Rickman, Gwinnett County District Attorney Daniel Porter said the officers had "sufficient articulable suspicion" to question Ayers and that no criminal charges were warranted. He suggested allowing a grand jury to investigate further about possible policy violations or civil liability.
According to a report of the proceedings on Rickman's website, the Stephens County district attorney, whose office overseas the drug task force, explained to grand jurors his consideration of legal and ethical obligations to remain the chief prosecuting officer in the case, including consultation with members of Ayers' family.
After reviewing the GBI report and interviewing six witnesses — five police officers and one expert in police use of force — the grand jury ruled 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." Based on that finding, jurors said officers involved in the incident "would be immune from criminal prosecution" under Georgia law.
Rickman said as far as he is concerned the criminal matter is closed. A lawyer representing Ayers' widow told the Toccoa Record he was disappointed by the grand jury's decision and that a civil lawsuit would follow.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.
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