By Bob Allen
Three Georgia law enforcement officials have appealed a judge’s ruling that they must stand trial to defend themselves against misconduct alleged in a lawsuit stemming from the fatal shooting of a Southern Baptist minister in a botched drug-sting investigation in 2009.
Deputy Sheriff Billy Shane Harrison and Sheriffs Randy Shirley and Joey Terrell filed an appeal June 13 asking the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Gainesville, Ga., to dismiss a civil lawsuit filed by the widow of Jonathan Ayers, the 28-year-old pastor of Shoals Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Ga., fatally shot by Harrison in a gas-station parking lot in nearby Toccoa on Sept. 1, 2009.
Harrison claims he had reason to believe that he and a fellow officer were endangered when Ayers drove toward them as they approached his car to question him about being spotted moments before with a woman who had sold drugs to a detective and was waiting for her dealer to deliver more.
An answer filed July 10 by widow Abigail Ayers, however, said enough doubt exists about whether police are telling the truth to warrant taking the matter to trial. In his dying moments, Pastor Ayers reportedly told medical personnel he didn’t know the man who shot him was a police officer and that he fled because he thought he was being robbed.
Abigail Ayers claims that details of the police version changed after it became known that the incident was captured on security-camera video and do not square with the testimony of bystanders who said they thought they were witnessing a robbery.
According to court documents, officers wanted to question Pastor Ayers after seeing him talking to and exchanging money with a known drug dealer and suspected prostitute. The counterclaim says Ayers had been ministering to the woman and trying to help her turn her life around and gave her money to help her pay her rent.
Harrison claims that whether or not Ayers knew he was a police officer, his reckless behavior while fleeing justified the use of deadly force in self defense. Ayers’ widow claims the fatal shot was fired after her husband was heading out of the parking lot and away from the officers.
The sheriffs of Stephens and Habersham counties in northeast Georgia, who cooperated in the multi-county undercover drug-sting operation in which Ayers got caught up, are cited in the lawsuit for failure to properly train Harrison in the use of deadly force.
The Ayers’ filing said that Harrison had been on the job less than 40 days, and in his previous job worked six months for a private contractor in Afghanistan where he taught Afghani police trainees to be ready to use deadly force if anyone failed to stop on command because of the possibility of an IED or the Taliban being involved in a war zone.
Following an investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a grand jury determined in December 2009 that the use of deadly force was justified in the incident and that no criminal charges should be filed.
Ayers claims her lawsuit that the GBI didn’t talk to witnesses who report a different version of what happened than the one put forward by the police.