Slain pastor lawsuit headed for trial

A wrongful death lawsuit stemming from the shooting death of a pastor caught in the middle of a botched drug investigation can move forward, an appeals court said Feb. 4.

By Bob Allen

A former Georgia police officer must stand trial to defend himself against misconduct alleged in a lawsuit stemming from the fatal shooting of a Southern Baptist minister in a botched drug-sting investigation in 2009, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Feb. 4. But two supervisors were cleared of failing to properly train him in the use of deadly force.

The appeals court said a lower court acted properly in refusing to dismiss a civil lawsuit filed in 2010 by the widow of Jonathan Ayers, pastor of Shoals Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Ga. Ayers, 28, was fatally shot by Deputy Sheriff Billy Shane Harrison, who mistook him for a drug-dealer suspect fleeing arrest in a gas-station parking lot in Toccoa, Ga., on Sept. 1, 2009.

Jonathan-Ayers-weddingThe lawsuit by widow Abigail Ayers alleges excessive use of deadly force, assault, battery and false arrest. Harrison claims erratic driving by the pastor endangered the officer and his partner, justifying his decision to fire two shots as Ayers’ vehicle pulled away.

One bullet struck Ayers in the abdomen. He died later at a local hospital. Before his death, the pastor reportedly told medical personnel he did not know who shot him and that he fled because he thought he was being robbed and was afraid.

Harrison said the duo identified themselves as police officers and ordered Ayers to stop for questioning. Harrison said at first he thought Ayers’ car had struck his partner and that he had reason to believe the driver was attempting to run over him as well. A grand jury armed with findings by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing.

In order to dismiss the civil lawsuit, however, the appellate court had to view the facts “in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion,” in this case, Abigail Ayers. By that standard, the court said, “we cannot say that Officer Harrison’s use of deadly force was objectively reasonable, or that he was entitled to qualified immunity under federal law or official immunity under state law.”

The court did find, however, the evidence warrants dismissal of a claim of negligent training against Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley and Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell, who trained and assigned Harrison to the joint Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team.

In that role, Harrison and his partner, Chance Oxner, observed Jonathan Ayers talking to a woman they knew to be waiting for a man who was going to sell her drugs. Later spotting his car parked outside while he went into a convenience store to draw money from an ATM machine, the non-uniformed officers waited until Ayers returned to his car before rushing the vehicle with weapons drawn.

The appellate court said it will be up to a jury to decide whether Harrison properly identified himself as a police officer and if he was justified in using deadly force. Police acknowledge they did not have probable cause to place Ayers under arrest but say they wanted to question him about why he was talking to the suspect.

After his death, friends of Ayers said he had been ministering to the woman, trying to convince her to get off drugs and turn her life around. At the time of his death, Abigail Ayers was pregnant with the couple’s first child.

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