Brunswick — At high noon on June 18, 2010, Caroline Small, a petite 35-year-old woman and mother of two, sat behind the wheel of her beat-up Buick Century with nowhere to turn. Police vehicles flanked her on two sides, a shallow ditch was on another and a utility pole blocked her rear bumper.
Unarmed but distraught, Small’s crime to that point had been reckless driving and leading police on an erratic low-speed chase that ended when her car, tires flattened to the rims, spun out on a suburban street. Sirens blared and officers shouted as she put the car into reverse, then drive, then reverse. Two officers stood ground near their cars, guns drawn.
“If she moves the car, I’m going to shoot her,” an officer yelled. Small pulled forward. Eight bullets tore through the windshield, striking her in the head and the face. The shooting was captured on police dash cam video.
So was what the two Glynn County officers said afterward. They compared their marksmanship. One told a witness how he saw Small’s head explode.
Their words were as callous as Small’s death unnecessary.
“This is the worst one I’ve ever investigated,” said Mike McDaniel, a retired GBI agent who supervised the 2010 criminal investigation into the officers’ actions. “I don’t think it’s a good shoot. I don’t think it’s justified.”
Small’s death has also haunted Byron Bennett, who as a member of the grand jury that considered the officers’ fate voted to clear them of wrongdoing. Bennett now regrets that choice.
“I felt like I let that lady down,” he said. “I felt like they killed that lady. They didn’t give her a chance.”
The grand jury Bennett served on found the two Glynn County officers who fired the shots — Sgt. Robert C. Sasser and Officer Michael T. Simpson — were justified in pulling the trigger. A federal judge last September threw out the Small family’s wrongful death lawsuit saying the two officers killed lawfully because they thought Small posed a threat. Neither officer was ever disciplined.
What happened in Small’s case demonstrates the broad powers police in Georgia have to shoot and kill unarmed citizens and to influence the outcome of their cases in the legal process. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation of the case found that:
• Glynn County police officers interfered with the GBI’s investigation from the start, seeking to protect the officers.
• The department tampered with the crime scene and created misleading evidence that was shown to the grand jury.
• The local district attorney shared the state’s evidence with the officers nearly two months before the grand jury convened and cut an unusual deal with them just before it met.
Amidst a national debate over police body cameras, Small’s case also highlights how limited video can be when matched against the wide latitude afforded police and the public’s predisposition to believe officers when they say their lives are in danger, no matter the circumstances.
The officers’ defense was simple: they believed Small was using her car as a weapon and intended to run them over. They feared for their lives and the public’s safety. The argument rested on the implausible notion that Small, resting on her rims, had enough room to drive through a narrow gap and run them down.
Five years later, Sasser and Simpson are both certified officers in Georgia with their police powers intact. Neither would be interviewed for this story. The case is one of at least 150 fatal police shootings in Georgia since 2010 identified by an AJC/Channel 2 investigation.
Small, who died a week after the shooting, never regained consciousness to tell her side of what happened. She had struggled for years with drug and alcohol addiction as well as mental health problems.
Her divorce had finalized just days before the shooting. Her ex-husband, Keith Small, said he loved his wife and remembers her as a caring mother to their daughter, Analiese, who was 3 when her mother was killed, and an older daughter from a previous relationship.
His wife had relapsed in the months leading up to the shooting and been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Dissociative Disorder. He believes her mental health issues played into her actions the day of the chase. She needed help from police, he said, not to be shot. Justice, he said, was not served.
Small has never spoken about the case before, but he is speaking out now, in part, to help clear his wife’s name. After the shooting, he said, the public discussion about her drifted to her troubled history with addiction and distracted from the officers’ actions.
“She wasn’t just a junkie,” Small said. “She was a mom. She was a college student. She loved painting. She loved to read….I do want more people to understand that she wasn’t just some horrible person running away from the police, because that’s not who she was at all.”
David Perry, a 64-year-old prosecutor, was the newly named acting district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, including Glynn County, when he met with GBI agents and Glynn Police Chief Matt Doering to watch the dash cam video for the first time.
Perry told the investigators prior to viewing the 31-minute tape that he was pro-law enforcement and skeptical that the officers in the Small shooting had done anything wrong, McDaniel said. As he watched the video, however, Perry’s demeanor changed, McDaniel said.
Officer Sasser’s dash cam video shows Small backing up into the utility pole, then pulling forward and bumping into his county vehicle. At roughly the same time, Georgia State Patrol Trooper Jonathan Malone is seen running behind Small’s vehicle in an effort to extract her from the driver’s side, but he retreats when he sees Glynn County officers with their guns pointed at the Buick.
“Let me get out there and get her out,” Malone calls out to the other officers, according to the GBI audio transcripts.
“Hold on, hold on,” one unknown officer responds.
“If she moves the car, I’m going to shoot her,” Simpson says.
Moments later gunfire erupts and Small is hit by police bullets.
After the shooting, Sasser and Simpson are heard on video discussing the shoot.
“Where did you hit her?” Simpson asks, according to a GBI transcript.
“I hit her right in the face,” Sasser says.
“I watched the bridge of her nose…I pulled the trigger and I watched it hit her at the same time I think I fired,” Simpson says.
Sure Small was dead, Simpson waved off a witness and former EMT who offered to render aid, leaving her slumped against the window bleeding, records show.
The bloodshed began as a simple call to the police of a suspicious person.
Earlier that day, someone spotted Small sitting in her car at a local shopping mall and called police because they thought she might be doing drugs.
When a Glynn County officer approached and asked her to turn off the engine and step outside her car, Small ignored him and drove away. An expanding posse of patrol vehicles, sirens blaring, tried to stop her as she drove around the mall parking lot. Leaving the mall, Small drove four miles through Brunswick, never exceeding 35 mph.
Police laid down traffic sticks to flatten Small’s tires. Small struggled to keep the car on the road, driving on her rims and fishtailing through residential streets. At one point, she drove down the street listed on her driver’s license.
In the video, the chase ends when Trooper Malone, leading the pursuit, bumps the rear of the Buick and it spins to a stop. Sasser quickly positions his Glynn County police car on her front bumper, essentially confining her between the utility pole and his car and the state trooper’s vehicle.
After the video finished, Acting DA Perry hung his head and “turned green,” McDaniel told the AJC and Channel 2.
“We’re going to have to take this to a grand jury,” Perry said, according to McDaniel. “This is bad.”
THE NEXT IMAGE
Within hours of the shooting, Chief Doering had formed his own opinion of what happened. Based on witness statements and dash cam video, Doering told local reporters that his preliminary review led him to believe that the officers’ feared their lives were in danger and that they acted appropriately.
The next day’s news headline backed him up: “Woman shot trying to run down police.”
As is customary in many police shootings across the state, the chief called in the GBI to conduct an investigation of the officers’ conduct. The two agencies clashed repeatedly, according to both sides.
Glynn County officers accused the GBI of messing up the crime scene when a technician crawled on the hood of Small’s Buick to examine the bullet holes. GBI agents became concerned when Glynn’sinvestigators insisted on sitting in on the witness interviews, causing potential legal problems if the case went to criminal prosecution.
Chief Doering believed the GBI’s lead investigator, Lindsay Smith, who reported to McDaniel, was biased against the officers. At a certain point, it became clear to GBI agents that Glynn police were conducting a separate, parallel investigation to their own.
Tensions came to a head during a heated exchange between GBI agents and Glynn officials just days into the investigation. At a meeting to review the GBI’s use of force investigation policies, Tommy Tindale, Glynn’s head of internal affairs, told GBI agents that “the only reason we call you in is for public perception,” according to McDaniel’s sworn deposition in the Small family’s civil suit.
Tindale went on to say that the department had an obligation to protect its officers.
In an interview with the AJC and Channel 2, Doering said he called the GBI in to conduct an independent investigation. He acknowledged some in his department had concerns about the GBI’s conduct.
“I think that (Agent Smith) was not being as impartial to the facts as I thought that perhaps she could have been,” Doering said. “She was more accusatory versus just fact finding and there’s a difference. You don’t accuse somebody of doing something.”
But Doering and his investigators weren’t being impartial to the facts either, and their handling of the crime scene omitted one crucial detail: the location of Simpson’s car.
Simpson, one of the shooters, joined the chase in his police-issued SUV and when Small spun out pulled up to the left of Sasser’s car and a short distance behind the other police vehicles. Immediately after the shooting, however, another Glynn officer moved Simpson’s vehicle across the street, according to that officer’s police report. The car was left off crime scene diagrams, and its exact location was never established by investigators.
The omission created a huge opening for the officers, one that would be exploited fully when the case went to the grand jury.
The district attorney
The day Acting District Attorney Perry watched the dash cam video he told the Brunswick News that he planned to indict Sasser and Simpson for manslaughter. Doering was quoted saying he disagreed with the DA’s position, but respected it.
“Was there an immediate danger to the officers or the public for them to use the level of force they did?” Perry told the newspaper. “To me the answer was no.”
Days later, Perry inexplicably reversed course, and told the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville that he would not seek an indictment when he took the case to the grand jury.
“I have no preconceived notions or stance but there are questions here that need to be answered,” he said.
Doering told the newspaper he was relieved.
Perry died this past February, so the reasons for his abrupt change of heart are not fully known. But the record shows that a battle over a permanent replacement for the DA’s job was taking place in the midst of the investigation into the shooting.
A young prosecutor in the office named Jackie Johnson also wanted to be Brunswick DA and announced her intentions just three days after the shooting. She enlisted Chief Doering’s support and Doering wrote Gov. Sonny Perdue a letter of recommendation. In court documents, Doering acknowledged that he spoke to Johnson about Perry’s public statements about the Small case, and that she found his public comments inappropriate.
Perdue appointed Johnson Brunswick Circuit district attorney Aug. 9, and she was sworn in Aug. 12 in a ceremony attended by lawmakers, local judges and police officers, according to news reports. Two days later, she was quoted in the Brunswick News saying she intended to delay taking Small’s case to a grand jury, originally scheduled for later that month.
Johnson’s appointment returned Perry to his previous status as assistant DA in the office. In one of her first official acts on the job, however, Johnson fired Perry, according court records, and took over the Small case herself.
Johnson declined to be interviewed by AJC/Channel 2 reporters for this story.
“As District Attorney, I do not want my words used to compound the tragic nature of this case for our community,” she said in a letter to the news organizations.
Before he died, Perry spoke to an attorney handling the Small family’s civil lawsuit. There was no doubt in his mind, he told Atlanta attorney William Atkins, that he lost his job at the DA’s office because of his position on what happened to Caroline Small June 18.
The grand jury
Johnson waited a year to present the Small case to a grand jury. In the interim, she asked a mentor to review the evidence. Rick Currie, the DA in neighboring Waycross, had worked with Johnson when she was fresh out of law school.
Currie told Johnson he thought the officers should be charged with felony murder, Currie told the AJC and Channel 2.
Instead, Johnson undertook a highly unusual set of maneuvers. She cut a deal with the two officers, asking them to waive their right to a 15-day advance notice of any indictment. In return, she agreed not to offer an indictment for grand jurors to consider — unless they asked for one.
Almost unheard of in grand jury proceedings, Johnson also shared the state’s case and evidence with the officers’ attorneys two months before the grand jury met, according to court records.
The grand jury convened Aug. 17, 2011, and Johnson’s deference to the officers showed, according to GBI records and the depositions of witnesses who testified.
A PowerPoint intended to outline the state’s evidence did not include details about the two officers’ prior use of force, particularly helpful to Sasser, who had shot a drug suspect in a parking lot in 2005. In that case, Sasser said he heard an engine rev as if it were going to spring forward and he shot the suspect because he feared for his life.
Johnson did allow grand jurors, however, to learn about Small’s bouts with addiction and past run-ins with the law, including accusations of criminal trespass, theft and burglary. Traces of cocaine and alcohol, found in her system, were also presented to the grand jury.
The prior tensions with the GBI also resurfaced. GBI agents, for example, argued to Johnson that Small’s criminal history was not relevant because the officers didn’t know that at the time of the shooting and should not be included in the presentation to the grand jury.
Johnson also allowed the officers’ attorneys to cross-examine GBI Agent Smith in the grand jury chamber. Having already been granted access to the evidence, they came prepared.
Smith “described the two lawyers basically just taking over the grand jury from Jackie,” McDaniel told the AJC and Channel 2. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard of before.”
Agent Smith was also troubled by an animated re-enactment of the shooting that Johnson allowed to be shown to grand jurors. Created by the Glynn County police department, it showed the two officers standing between a wide gap between the patrol cars as they aimed their weapons. A shifting perspective showed how Small would have a clear angle to run them over. The animation concluded with Small’s car driving through the gap and running into the officers.
Smith had seen the animation and believed it presented a grossly inaccurate picture of the crime scene, she later said in a sworn deposition.
The animation also had a huge omission: Simpson’s SUV — inexplicably left off the crime scene diagram — was nowhere to be seen. At the time of the shooting, Simpson pulled up to the left of Sasser’s car and near Trooper Malone’s vehicle.
The tight space between the utility pole behind Small and Sasser’s vehicle in front of her — even without Simpson’s vehicle pictured in the animation — didn’t leave Small enough room to flee, Smith said.
“There is no way on this Earth that car could have moved in one swift motion through that gap,” Smith said in her deposition. “The way they showed it, with the wheel being turned and through the gap she went, was impossible.”
Perhaps the most powerful evidence in the grand jury chamber was the officers’ statements that closed out the proceedings. In Georgia, officers are given the special privilege to make an unchallenged statement at the end of the grand jury hearing. At least one of the officers broke down in tears, as did some of the grand jurors. One grand juror handed an officer tissues, according to another grand juror.
Grand juror Charles McManus, a retired attorney, told the AJC and Channel 2 that he asked about available charges and was told there were none, just a determination if the officers were justified in shooting Small.
The foreman called for a vote and the grand jurors voted 12-6 that they were. There was no discussion or deliberation prior to the vote, McManus said.
“I thought the video pretty much raised serious questions as to whether or not they needed to fire,” said McManus, who voted against the officers. “I don’t know whether they committed a crime or not, but I felt that they should go before a jury or a court to determine that.”
Bennett, the grand juror who now regrets his vote to clear the officers, told the AJC and Channel 2 that he believed the rush to vote without any deliberation affected the outcome. So did the way that he thought the evidence was weighted to the officers’ side.
“We failed the process,” Bennett said.
After the grand jury’s decision was announced, the grand jurors were dismissed. About half of them, according to Smith’s sworn deposition, hugged officers Sasser and Simpson on the way out.
Keith Small had no idea Johnson was even presenting his ex-wife’s case. He learned about the grand jury meeting, and its decision, from his attorney in a phone call afterward. He was dumbfounded.
“We had no clue,” Small said. “I was once again stunned how that played out with no one being made aware that was coming up.”
In June 2012, the family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Caroline Small’s two daughters. Federal Judge Lisa Godbey Wood dismissed the case last September on summary judgment in favor of the officers. A federal appeals court for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the decision in March.
In her opinion issued Sept. 30, 2014, Judge Wood called the shooting tragic, and noted that few facts in the case were in dispute. After watching the four dash cam videos from the chase, Judge Wood determined that Small’s death was not necessary, but that the officers’ actions were constitutional.
“Objectively reasonable officers would conclude that she posed a threat to, at a minimum, the officers standing a few yards away,” Judge Wood wrote.
Today, Sgt. Sasser remains with the Glynn County Police Department. Simpson left Glynn in June 2014 and took a job as a Glynn County sheriff’s deputy in March.
After their investigation in Brunswick, GBI Director Vernon Keenan changed the GBI’s policy regarding how the agency investigates officer-involved shootings. The policy now makes clear that any law enforcement agency seeking the GBI’s assistance could have no involvement or say in the investigation. It was intended to avoid the conflict and controversy the agency encountered in Brunswick.
“We do not want to go through the experience we had in Glynn County,” Keenan said. “Glynn County wanted to debate with us certain investigative steps that we were taking and they wanted to argue with us about some of the protocols we were following, and that’s not acceptable.”
How we got the story
Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative reporter Brad Schrade and Channel 2 Action News investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer reviewed thousands of pages of court records, police files and GBI documents associated with the shooting death of Caroline Small in June 2010.
The reporters interviewed senior GBI officials, Small’s ex-husband, legal experts, civil attorneys and Glynn County citizens who served on the grand jury that considered the case against the two officers involved in the shooting. Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who handled the case for the state, declined to be interviewed, as did the two officers. Brunswick Chief of Police Matt Doering agreed to an interview but expelled the reporters from his office when he objected to the line of questioning.
You can reach reporter Brad Schrade via e-mail or by calling 404-526-2875.
This Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News investigation is part of a broad examination of police shootings in Georgia. In the coming months, reporters will highlight more cases and provide statewide context to the national debate over police violence.