Pastor’s wrongful death lawsuit goes to jury

After nearly four years winding its way through court, a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the widow of a Baptist pastor killed in a botched drug sting is now in the hands of a jury.

By Bob Allen

A civil trial involving a Baptist pastor killed in 2009 by police who mistook him for a suspected drug dealer is in the hands of a jury.

After closing arguments on Wednesday, jurors in U.S. District Court in Gainesville, Ga., were ordered to reappear for deliberations at 9:30 a.m. today in the case involving Jonathan Ayers, pastor of Shoals Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Ga., fatally shot by police on Sept. 1, 2009, outside a convenience store in Toccoa, Ga.

Jonathan-Ayers-weddingHis widow, Abigail Ayers, claims the officer who fired the fatal shot, Mountain Judicial Circuit N.C.I.S. Drug Team Agent Billy Shane Harrison, was an overzealous cop who deprived her husband of his civil rights.

Harrison, who took the stand on Tuesday, says he perceived Ayers as an imminent threat when the individual previously seen talking to a suspect in a drug investigation backed toward fellow Drug Team Agent Chance Oxner, who was behind the pastor’s vehicle, and then drove forward toward Harrison.

Surveillance video shows Harrison firing shots as Ayers' vehicle sped away. One bullet struck Ayers in the abdomen. He crashed his vehicle about a half mile away. Police found him alert and talking, but he died later during surgery at a local hospital.

Ayers reportedly told medical personnel that he didn’t know the men who shot him were police and he fled because he feared he was being robbed.

The two officers were driving an unmarked vehicle and dressed in plain clothes as part of an undercover operation, but Harrison testified that he saw Ayers look at his badge and that he had “zero doubt” that the preacher knew he was a policeman, according to courtroom coverage by WNEG radio in Toccoa.

If jurors find Harrison liable in Ayers’ wrongful death, they will also assess damages to be paid to his widow, Abigail, who was pregnant with the couple’s first child when he died.

The civil trial got underway Feb. 3 but was postponed last week due to a winter storm that moved through northeast Georgia and on Monday due to President’s Day.

A grand jury cleared Harrison of any criminal wrongdoing in 2009, sparking controversy among residents who viewed the process as tainted by law enforcement officials seeking to protect one of their own.

Abigail Ayers filed the civil lawsuit on March 15, 2010, alleging “gross and plain incompetence” in the use of deadly force.

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