In November 2006, a narcotics team from the Atlanta Police Department apprehended a man with a known drug history. They planted marijuana on him, then threatened to arrest him unless he gave them information about where they could find a supply of illegal drugs. He gave them the address of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. Instead of finding an informant to make a controlled buy from the address, the officer instead lied on the search warrant, inventing an informant and describing a drug buy that never happened. When the police broke into Johnston's home on the evening of November 21, 2006, she met them with an old, non-functioning revolver she used to scare off trespassers. They opened fire. Two officers were wounded from friendly fire. The other officers called for ambulances for their colleagues. Meanwhile, they handcuffed Johnston and left her to bleed to death in her own home while one office planted marijuana in her basement. A subsequent federal investigation revealed that lying on drug warrants was common in the APD, the product of a quota system the department imposed on narcotics cops. That system was the result of the pool of federal funding for drug policing, funding for which the department competed with other police departments across the country. The federal investigation and media reports also found numerous other victims of wrong-door police raids in the years leading up to Johnston's death. The entire narcotics department was later fired or transferred. While Johnston's death led to calls for changes in the way the city enforces the drug laws, there was little in the way of real reform. The city instituted a civilian review board to oversee the police department, but its powers were severely weakened after complaints from the police union, and its first director eventually resigned in frustration.
Sources: Ted Conover, "Alex White, Professional Snitch," The New York Times, June 29, 2012; Rhonda Cook, "Chain of Lies Led to Botched Raid," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 27, 2007; reporting by Radley Balko.
Known around the neighborhood as "Pops," 80-year-old Isaac Singletary moved into his high-crime Jacksonville, Fla., neighborhood in 1987 to care for and protect his sister and mother, both of whom were sick at the time. The retired repairman was known to sit in front of his house in a lawn chair to shoo trespassers and drug dealers away from his property. But in January 2007, two undercover narcotics cops, posed as drug dealers, set up shop on Singletary's lawn. Singletary first came out of his house and yelled at them to leave. They didn't. He went back inside. Minutes later, he came out again and told them to leave, this time while waving a handgun. One of the cops then opened fire. Wounded, Singletary tried to escape into his backyard. The cops chased him down and shot him again, this time in the back. Singletary died at the scene. They never told Singletary they were police officers. The police initially claimed Singletary tried to rob them, then they claimed Singletary fired first. Five witnesses said that wasn't true. Three months later, investigating state attorney Harry Shorstein initially expressed some frustration with the operation. "If we're just selling drugs to addicts, I don't know what we're accomplishing," he told the Florida Times-Union. But three months later, Shorstein cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing. His report included a couple of inconsistencies. First, while attorneys for Singletary's family found four witnesses who said the police fired first, Shorstein could find only one -- a convicted drug dealer Shorstein deemed untrustworthy. Second, while Shorstein criticized the police officers for not identifying themselves before they started shooting at Singletary, he still put the bulk of the blame on Singletary himself. He concluded Singletary "was an armed civilian who refused orders to drop his gun," even though Singletary thought the orders came from two drug dealers. Ironically, Singletary's death came a little less than two years after Florida passed a highly publicized law expanding the right to self-defense. The "Stand Your Ground" law removed the traditional legal requirement that when faced with a threat, you must first attempt to escape before using lethal force. An internal report from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office also cleared the two undercover officers, Darrin Green and James Narcisse, of violating any department policies. The report, written by five members of the sheriff's department, concluded that they had followed department procedures, and that "no further action" was necessary. Narcisse, the first officer to fire at Singletary, was later fired for disciplinary reasons that the sheriff's department said were unrelated to the Singletary case. Sheriff John Rutherford eventually conceded that Singletary was "a good citizen" and that his death was "a tragic incident." But he also rebuffed calls to end undercover drug stings like the one police were conducting on Singletary's property. Then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist called it one of the "challenges" of keeping a community safe. In 2010, the city of Jacksonville agreed to pay Singletary's family a $200,000 settlement, though the city admitted no wrongdoing.
Sources: David Hunt, "In the wake of 2 fatal shootings, some question police tactics," Florida Times-Union, January 27, 2007; Mary Kelli Palka, "A neighborhood wonders: Why isn't the sheriff here?; Rutherford says a federal review isn't needed, defends not going to the scene," Florida Times-Union, January 30, 2007; Bridget Murphy, "Man's family wants cops to face charges," Florida Times-Union, July 28, 2007; Jessie-Lynne Kerr, "Board clears officers in shooting; 'No further action' is needed by police in the case of the January death of an 80-year-old man," Florida Times-Union, August 2, 2008; Matt Galnor, "City to pay $200,000 in shooting; Officers killed man in 2007," Florida Times-Union, June 22, 2010; Bridget Murphy and Jim Schoettler, "Drug stings to continue, sheriff says," Florida Times-Union, January 30, 2007.
In September 2009, Johnathan Ayers, a 28-year-old Baptist pastor from Lavonia, Ga., was gunned down by a North Georgia narcotics task force in the parking lot of a gas station. Police would later acknowledge he was not using or trafficking in illicit drugs. Instead, Ayers had been ministering to Johanna Barrett, the actual target of the investigation. According to an interview Barrett gave to a North Georgia newspaper shortly after Ayers' death, on the day he died the pastor had seen her walking near a gas station on her way back to an extended-stay motel where she lived with her boyfriend. Ayers had known Barrett for a number of years, and offered her a ride back to the motel. He also gave her the money in his pocket, $23, to help pay her rent. The police were trailing Barrett at the time. But instead of apprehending her at the motel, they instead followed Ayers, who they saw hand Ayers cash. They followed Ayers to a nearby gas station where he withdrew some money from an ATM. Shortly after he got back into his car, a black Escalade pulled up behind him. Three officers, all undercover, rushed Ayers' vehicle and pointed their guns at him. The pastor panicked and attempted to escape. As he backed out, Ayers' car grazed one police officer. Officer Billy Shane Harrison then opened fire, shooting Ayers in the stomach. Ayers drove for another thousand yards before crashing his car. He died at the hospital. His last words to his family and medical staff were that he thought he was being robbed. The police found no illicit drugs in his car. A grand jury later declined to indict Harrison for any crime. District Attorney Brian Rickman praised the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for going to "very extraordinary lengths" to conduct a fair investigation. But a civil suit suggested otherwise. The complaint alleged that Harrison wasn't authorized to arrest him. On the day Ayers was killed, Harrison had yet to take the firearms training classes required for his certification as a police officer. In fact, Harrison had no training at all in the use of lethal force. Harrison's lack of training was later confirmed by local TV station WSB-TV and, after the fact, by the GBI. Harrison was suspended. The civil suit also alleged prior disciplinary problems with Harrison and another officer involved in her husband's death, including alleged drug use.
Sources: Rob Moore, "Case File: Ayers Feared a Robbery," The Northeast Georgian, December 29, 2009; Steve Huff, "Did a Good Dead Lead Pastor Jonathan Ayers to his Death?" September 10, 2009; Jessica Waters, "GBI Findings Outlined," The Toccoa Record, December 28, 2009; Denise Matthews, "Grand Jury Declares Ayers Shooting Justified," Franklin County Citizen, December 24, 2009; Charlie Bauder, "District Attorney Defends Investigation of Preacher's Death," Anderson Independent-Mail, December 22, 2009; Estate of Jonathan Ayers v. Officer Billy Shane Harrison, et al., complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, March 15, 2010; "Arrest Made in Pastor Death Case," Actions News 2, WSB-TV Atlanta, June 18, 2010; Rob Moore, "NCIS Officer on Leave Pending Probe," The Toccoa Record, March 29, 2010; Jessica Waters, "Ayers Federal Civil Case Updated," The Toccoa Record, January 6, 2011.
In October 1992, a team of police from state and federal agencies raided the ranch of 61-year-old Malibu millionaire Donald Scott. The raid was led by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, even though Scott actually lived in Ventura County. The police in that county weren't notified of the raid. Scott's new wife first encountered the police in the kitchen. Hearing her scream, Scott armed himself, and went to meet the intruders. He was shot dead in his home. Scott was suspected of growing marijuana. Friends and relatives would later say that while Scott was a hard drinker, he wasn't a drug user, and in fact deplored the use of illicit drugs. The raid turned up no marijuana plants, nor any evidence of marijuana growth. A subsequent investigation by Ventura County District Attorney Michael Bradbury was highly critical of the investigation, raid, and motives of the police agencies involved. Bradbury found ample evidence that the police agencies -- particularly the L.A. County sheriff's office -- were eyeing Scott's $5 million ranch for asset forfeiture, and had been told by the DEA that it could initiate forfeiture proceedings if authorities found as few as 14 marijuana plants. The report found that the warrant affidavits included false information, misleading information, and omitted information that would have indicated to a judge that Scott wasn't engaged in any illegal activity. In 2000, Francis Plante -- Scott's widow -- settled with the various agencies involved in her husband's death for $5 million. No police officers were ever disciplined for Scott's death.
Sources: Michael Fessier Jr., "Trail's End; Deep in a Wild Canyon West of Malibu, a Controversial Law Brought Together a Zealous Sheriff 's Deputy and an Eccentric Recluse. A Few Seconds Later, Donald Scott Was Dead," Los Angeles Times Magazine, August 1, 1993; Michael Bradbury, "Report on the Death of Donald Scott by Ventura County District Attorney Michael Bradbury," March 30, 1993.
Esequiel Hernandez, 18, was herding goats near his home in Redford, Texas, when he was killed by a team of U.S. Marines in 1997. Dressed in camouflage, the Marines were deployed near the border town as part of a federal program aimed at stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the United States from Mexico. Hernandez carried a rifle to scare off predatory animals. When he heard noises from the hiding Marines, he fired in their direction. One Marine fired back, striking Hernandez in the chest. The U.S. government later paid the Hernandez family a $1.9 million settlement. None of the Marines was criminally charged.
Sources: "Oversight Investigation of the Death of Esequiel Hernandez, Jr.: A Report of Chairman Lamar Smith to the Subcommittee on Immigration & Claims of the Committee on the Judiciary," House of Representatives, 150th congress. United States Government Printing, January 1998; Monte Paulsen, "Fatal Error: The Pentagon's War on Drugs Takes a Toll on the Innocent," Austin Chronicle, July 11, 2008.
In December 2008, an undercover narcotics cop in Lima, Ohio, had bought cocaine from 31-year-old Anthony Terry. They could have arrested Terry then, but they didn't. They also could have arrested him two days before a raid on his home during a traffic stop when they found cocaine in the car. At the time he was pulled over, the police had been watching the home of Terry's girlfriend, 26-year-old Tarika Wilson. Instead, on Jan. 4, 2009, the Lima SWAT team staged a pre-dawn raid on Wilson's home. Terry, on the first floor at the time, surrendered immediately. As Sgt. Joseph Chavalia ascended the steps to the second floor, he saw signs of movement in a bedroom. He ordered whomever was inside to drop to the floor. At about the same time, downstairs in the kitchen, one of Chavalia's fellow officers fired a few rounds at Terry's dogs. Chavalia mistook those shots for hostile fire and opened fire on the upstairs room. Two bullets from Chavalia's gun struck Wilson in the neck, while she was on her knees, with one hand in the air. Her other hand was holding her 1-year-old son, Sincere. Wilson died. Sincere was shot in the shoulder, and had a finger amputated. Chavalia was charged with negligent homicide and negligent assault. A jury acquitted him on both charges. At the trial, a use-of-force expert and former Los Angeles Police Department SWAT member said that if anything, Chavalia should have fired at the unarmed woman sooner. Despite the prosecutor's decision to charge Chavalia, an internal Lima PD investigation found that he had followed department use-of-force protocol. After his acquittal, Chavalia was returned to the force. Lima Police Chief Greg Garlock said he had no plans to change the way the police department used its SWAT team. In January 2010, the city of Lima settled with Wilson's estate for $2.5 million. The money was put in a trust for Sincere and her other children.
Sources: Christopher Maag, "Police Shooting of Mother and Infant Exposes a City's Racial Tension," The New York Times, January 30, 2008; Sarah Stemen, "Five years later: Friends, family of Tarika Wilson say nothing has changed," Lima News, January 4, 2013; "Experts: Woman on knees when shot," Associated Press, July 31, 2008.
Shortly after California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, the Clinton administration began drug raids on dispensaries and cultivators, even though they were complying with federal law. One of those raids was on the Los Angeles marijuana grow operation of Todd McCormick and Peter McWilliams. McCormick used pot to treat the pain associated with a cancer treatment that had fused two of his vertebrae. McWilliams had been diagnosed with AIDS, then with non-Hodgkins lymphoma brought on by AIDS. Smoking marijuana eased his nausea, which helped him keep take his medication both to manage his AIDS the chemotherapy for his lymphoma. McWilliams was a self-help author, and had become an outspoken civil liberties activist. With respect to pot, he also made no attempt to hide the fact that while it was medicinal, it also made him feel good. The high took his mind off the fact that he was battling two diseases. McWilliams and McCormick were raided in 1997, by DEA agents -- as McWilliams later described it, "guns drawn, commando-style." Because they were tried on federal charges, the jury wasn't allowed to hear that the two men had broken no California laws. McWilliams' doctors were also prohibited from testifying about his marijuana use. Because of those restrictions, McWilliams pleaded guilty and hoped for leniency. But after his arrest, McWilliams' mother put up her house as collateral to post his bail. One condition of McWilliams' bail was that he refrain from smoking marijuana. Prosecutors told McWilliams and his mother that if he failed a drug test or was caught with pot she'd lose her house. So McWilliams abstained from using the drug. Consequently, he got sicker. McWilliams was found dead in his apartment on June 14, 2000. Overcome with nausea, he had thrown up, then choked and aspirated on his own vomit. The conservative icon and legalization advocate William F. Buckley eulogized McWilliams in his syndicated column.
Peter McWilliams is dead. Age? Fifty. Profession? Author, poet, publisher . . . What was his offense? He collaborated in growing marijuana plants. What was his defense? Well, the judge wouldn't allow him to plead his defense to the jury. If given a chance, the defense would have argued that under Proposition 215, passed into California constitutional law in 1996, infirm Californians who got medical relief from marijuana were permitted to use it. The judge also forbade any mention that McWilliams suffered from AIDS and cancer, and got relief from the marijuana. What was he doing when he died? Vomiting. The vomiting hit him while in his bathtub, and he choked to death. Was there nothing he might have done to still the impulse to vomit? Yes, he could have taken marijuana; but the judge's bail terms forbade him to do so, and he submitted to weekly urine tests to confirm that he was living up to the terms of his bail . . . Peter was a wry, mythogenic guy, humorous, affectionate, articulate, shrewd, sassy . . . Imagine such a spirit ending its life at 50, just because they wouldn't let him have a toke. We have to console ourselves with the comment of the two prosecutors. They said they were "saddened" by Peter McWilliams' death. Many of us are--by his death and the causes of it . . . The struggle against a fanatical imposition of federal laws on marijuana will continue, as also on the question whether federal laws can stifle state initiatives. Those who believe the marijuana laws are insanely misdirected have a martyr.
Sources: Peter McWilliams, "The DEA Wishes Me a Nice Day," Liberty, May, 1998; William F. Buckley, Jr., "Peter McWilliams, R.I.P." Universal Press Syndicate, June 21, 2000; R.W. Bradford, "The Life and Death of Peter McWilliams," Liberty, August 2000; "Los Angeles Drug Case Bars Medical Marijuana Defense," The New York Times, November 7, 1999.