By Bob Allen
The widow of a Southern Baptist pastor fatally shot during a botched 2009 drug sting has asked that prospective jurors be polled about pretrial publicity of an incident that divided a small north Georgia community as the case heads for trial Feb. 3.
The Nov. 20 request is item No. 271 in a court docket in a long-running civil lawsuit over the Sept. 1, 2009, shooting death of 29-year-old Jonathan Ayers, pastor of Shoals Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Ga., by a police officer who mistook him for a fleeing criminal.
A lawsuit filed by Abigail Ayers, scheduled for trial at 9:30 a.m., Feb. 3, in the U.S. District Court of North Georgia, alleges excessive force, battery and false arrest by Billy Shane Harrison, a former deputy sheriff who fired the fatal shot as the pastor sped away from a gas station parking lot in Toccoa, Ga., when officers approached his car to question him.
Both sides have asked District Judge Richard Story to withhold testimony likely central to the other’s case. Harrison’s lawyers want excluded statements Ayers made at the hospital saying he thought he was being robbed as hearsay that doesn’t meet the legal requirement of a “dying declaration” that would be admissible in court.
Ayers’ side asks that the defense not be allowed to allege before a jury that Ayers was in fact having an affair with a prostitute officers saw him talking to moments earlier. Lawyers say the woman’s deposition allegedly obtained under threat of arrest is prejudicial and false.
Ayers says her late husband had been ministering to the woman living in a Toccoa motel by encouraging her to get off drugs and turn her life around. According to a court document, one witness is prepared to testify that he was asked to pray for the woman “whose soul Ayers was concerned for” long before the incident occurred.
The shooting divided the community over tactics used by a Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team targeting the illicit use of drugs in three counties and the city of Toccoa.
A grand jury determined the use of lethal force was justified, because the officer reasonably believed he was in physical danger as Ayers recklessly sped away, nearly striking him and his partner. A rally at Grace Baptist Church in Toccoa offered prayer and support for Ayers’ family and called for justice in a slaying that some believe police tried to cover up.
In one court document, lawyers for Harrison argue that if medical personnel are allowed to testify about what they heard Ayers say before he died in a hospital during surgery, the jury would infer that Harrison failed to properly identify himself as a police officer.
That, they contend, would open the door for Harrison’s lawyers to “fight fire with fire” by presenting “a more reasonable inference,” that Ayers feared that his “illegal, immoral sexual relationship” with the woman they were investigating was about to be exposed.
Harrison also claims that the plaintiff’s use of “the Reverend” when mentioning Ayers in court documents is a tactic to imply that he was incapable of moral wrongdoing.