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by Peter Moskos

February 19, 2014

Civil trial in shooting of Jonathan Ayers begins

Remember Jonathan Ayers? Probably not. But you should. In 2009 he was an shot dead by police in what was one of the worst police-involved shooting in American history. Seriously.

It didn't become a national scandal.

It wasn't even big news.

But there was so much wrong. So much police did wrong -- tactically and morally -- it's hard to get one's head around how messed up this shooting was. It should be a case study of what not to as a police officers.

To refresh your memory, Reverend Ayers was driving along and picked up Kayla Barrett. Barrett was a drug addict Ayers had known for years through his priestly duties. This time Barrett was being watched by undercover police. Ayers said some nice words and gave her "all the money he had on him": $23. 

Ayers then went to buy gas (probably with a credit card), and after paying inside, got back in his car. At this point he was bum-rushed by mean looking men with guns. Ayers had no idea they were cops. Nor did bystanders also said they thought they were witnessing a robbery. Ayers tried to drive away from his attackers and in doing so backed his car up into deputy, Chance Oxner, who, like a fool, put himself into a position where a car could back up into him. After Ayers starting going forward and driving away, shots were fired at Ayers car. Ayers was shot and killed by a police officer. The officer who killed Ayers was not certified to carry a gun. According to the paramedic who treated Ayers, Ayers asked, "Who shot me?"

Brian Rickman, the district attorney, failed to convince a grand jury to bring charges against any of the officers involved. Rickman may have not been trying to hard as he was close friends (like pallbearer close) with the unit's commanding officer, Kyle Bryan.

[Distraction: Police first tried to justify the shooting by discrediting Ayers. Police threatened to arrest Barrett if she didn't admit she was having an affair with Ayers. Barrett first told police what they wanted to hear, but then quite convincingly recanted:
“I'm an addict,” 26-year-old Kayla Barrett admitted Tuesday, saying that Ayers was ministering to her on the day of his death. “I've known him awhile - about six or seven years,” she said, calling him “a pastor and a friend.” She said that, over time, Ayers had been lecturing her and trying to get her to straighten out her life and to get off drugs. “I've been doing drugs for nine years,” Barrett said, noting that she is addicted to cocaine - “crack, basically.”
Barrett said she asked Ayers if he could help her out with the back rent, and that he gave “all the money he had on him” - $23. “His last words to me were I didn't owe him anything,” Barrett said. “Probably 15-20 minutes after that I could hear the shots.” Responding to allegations she has heard, she said, “No, we did not have sex - I'm not capable,” referring to her Aug. 22 miscarriage.

“He [Ayers] doesn't have any part in any kind of drug activity,” Barrett insisted. “He's never solicited me for prostitution. I don't do that.” “I've never been charged with prostitution,” she said. Barrett said Ayers knew her fiancĂ© and stopped to talk to him or her whenever and wherever he saw them and that he had stopped by the motel in the past. “He had been by there before,” she said. “He knew my fiancĂ© also. I didn't see him very much - about every two months.”
The issue of their relationship is irrelevant to the shooting, but I do think it's worth pointing out that Ayers was actually a priest doing priestly good. Police eventually admitted that Ayers was not doing anything illegal and was never part of their investigation. Absurdly, Harrison later testified that Ayers was free to leave if he did not wish to respond to questions when police approached his car. Anyway...]

As I previously wrote:
It's the totality of the situation that bothers me. It's not just that they were shooting at a car driving away (though that bothers me too). It's everything. It's choosing this location to stop and question the man. It's using plainclothes officers to do so. It's coming with gun drawn. It's putting yourself behind a car that just might want to get away. These are all bad choices. Had the police just make one good choice, none of this would have happened.

I blame the officers for the bad choices they made: 1) approaching Ayers armed, 2) approaching in plain clothes, 3) not making in clear they were police, 4) approaching Ayers when he was in his car and yet 5) not doing a normal car stop, 6) placing themselves in harm's way behind the car, and 7) shooting at a car driving away (in a gas station, no less).

Hey, we all make mistakes. And I'll always give police the benefit of the doubt. But when you make that many mistakes and you end up killing an innocent man, I think you should be punished.
Turns out that Billy Shane Harrison, the officer who killed Ayers, didn't (and doesn't) actually have police powers. He let his firearm training lapse. Oops (and from TV news).

Maybe if this drug officer had had proper training, oh, I don't know, he could have figured a better tactical way of stopping an innocent man for questioning without causing a situation where a good man gets killed while trying to get away from armed men he didn't know were police!
Now we don't need to get into another debate about the shooting. But all you fools (I mean folks) who think this killing was somehow justified, ask yourself this: Can you imagine any police-involved shooting that isn't justified? (short of cold-blood premeditated murder--which this was not.)

It's one thing to say, "Cops sometimes make mistakes. And sometimes a whole bunch of dumb-ass mistakes. And sometimes they comes together and, well, sorry. But mistakes aren't crimes and we always need to give police the benefit of the doubt." OK, fair enough. But if you go beyond that and think that all police-involved shootings are justified, then why even have this discussion?
Well now, a civil trial has begun, four-and-a-half years later.

There are a lot of names here and it's confusing because they're all tied together, but that's part of the tragedy. Here's the cast of characters (and do correct me if I'm wrong).

Jonathan Ayers (killed) was shot by Billy Shane Harrison. Who may have not been certified under Georgia law to carry a weapon at the time. Brian Rickman was the district attorney and friend of Kyle Bryant (who has since died of natural causes). Bryant was the commander of the drug task force that included Harrison and Oxner.

Lt. Edwin Wilson was a training officer who said he had trained Harrison, but didn't. Wilson was appointed by Sheriff Randy Shirley. Shirley, who has been reelected, later fired Wilson after Wilson was arrested and charged with a felony for lying about Harrison's firearm training.

I'm going to quote hotrod's (slightly edited) comment from a previous post. And many thanks to hotrod for this update, or else I would not have know the latest.
This case is still, in my mind, the gold standard for a buffonery-driven police-involved shooting. The three cops did NOTHING right. When they were left with a body on the ground (actually a surgical ward), the whitewash began.

As others have noted, everything was driven by the totality of circumstances. And to take a hard look (not necessarily a criminal charge) at the totality of circumstances, you have to take a very hard look at Kyle Bryant, the commander of the alphabet soup task force and THE DRIVER OF THE SUV that tried to box in Ayers.

Kyle Bryant was hired in mid-2009. Brian Rickman, the local DA, said in referring to Bryant - "I put my reputation on this - (he's) as good as you will ever find." (That was in the Clayton (GA) Tribune o/a April 16 2009. The URL has gone dead, but I guess someone in the area could do the legwork if they really wanted.)

(Sidenote - why is a DA this closely involved in LE hiring? Honest question.)

Kyle Bryant died Nov 25th, 2012, apparently of natural causes.

Note that Brian Rickman was one of the pallbearers.

I sincerely hope that Kyle Bryant is at peace. I'm playing with rhetorical fire a little bit in mentioning his death, and I note it here only to point out how close he appears to have been with Brian Rickman.

Consider that between the time he staked his reputation on Kyle Bryant being as good as they come and the time where he was honored as a pallbearer, Brian Rickman was able to summon up enough objectivity to be the only non-civil law voice Abbie Ayers and her baby had to speak for Johnathan Ayers.

Awesome. Just awesome. Good job Mr. Rickman.

Jonathan Ayers is dead. Abbie Ayers a widow, and her son never met his father. Kyle Bryant is dead. I can't imagine the aftermath of a police-involved shooting, particularly THIS police-involved shooting, did anything for his quality of life in his last couple of years. Billy Shane Harrison, who hadn't done his training, is no longer a cop. Chance Oxner has gone in the space of a few years from being a task force commander (Bryant's predecessor) to a burglary investigator (check the Habersham County Sheriff's website). The training officer handpicked by Sherrif Randy Shirley, Edwin Wilson, was charged with a felony, fired, and apparently got a plea with no jail time.

But the two sheriffs (Shirley of Stephens County and Terrell of Habersham) and the DA on watch (Rickman) during this absolute grade-A freak show have all been reelected, and it took more than four years to get this case to trial.
Update (Feb 23, 2014): Jury awards widow $2.3 million. And I guess that is that.... The end.


Ebenezer Scrooge said...

The shooting seems off-the-charts messed up. However, the subsequent blue wall seems like business as usual. I don't see how anybody can trust any police testimony that involves the conduct of another policeman, at least if it is exculpatory. Yes, I know that 99% of complaints of police brutality are false. But the blue wall goes up 99% of the time that the complaints are true.

And I'm perfectly willing to accept police testimony on other matters--my wife deals with police testimony on non-conduct matters on a routine basis , and finds them unusually truthful.

hotrod said...

Thank you for taking an interest.

As for the result - liable with a 2.3 million award - not that big of an award, actually, though I suppose it's something -


PCM said...

Thanks for the update. I guess that is the (slightly unsatisfying) end.
As to the blue wall... vastly overrated. Perhaps it's bigger in small departments, but cops testify against other cops all the time (at least here in NYC). Why would a cop risk his or her pension for some asshole? I wouldn't.

Anonymous said...

A couple years ago Abigail's lawyer found my comments on your blog and contacted me to see if I had a copy of the facebook photo of BSH that I linked here to get you to look at.

I did try to save the page. I knew it would quickly be taken down after they released the name, but it is difficult to save Facebook photos and I failed. At least you got to see it.

One more comment: My research suggested that Chance Oxner,the guy who jumped on the back of Jonathan's car, had previously gotten a woman convicted of felony vehicular assault by suddenly jumping in front of her car a la Gescard Isnora. Can't remember the woman's name, but it is probably still lurking on page 100 of Chance's GOOGLE results.

Anonymous said...


here's to hoping they get a new trial on appeal

Anonymous said...

Its nothing new about police killing innocent people happens all the time.we are a police state it just hasn't been declared .my opinion

Anonymous said...

I believe Brian Rickman was a former deputy sheriff in Stephens County. Kyle Bryant was a good man in my book - he tried (unsuccessfully) to clean up the reputation that the DTF had before him. He was the former Chief Deputy in Banks County and was planning on coming back after this drug confrontation fiasco. Officer Wilson was the fall guy - the Sheriff of Stephens County knew that Billy Shane flunked the psychological evaluations. He was warned not to put a gun in his hand, but guess what - he did. And the guy who used to work as a deputy was the DA. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out. Oh yeah - FYI - if you make an anonymous tip to the GBI about a Sheriff - they call them up to tell them that someone is ratting them out. Yeah. I have a healthy disrespect for The Law.