171 shot dead, zero prosecuted

Wide latitude for police to shoot, unique grand jury privileges and DA discretion add up to no prosecutions for officers who kill in the line of duty.

Janice Puckett knew the broad outlines of the tragedy that befell her brother, Walter Folds, on April 23, 2012: A non-uniformed Griffin police sergeant shot Folds in the back of the head after chasing him through a local park.

What Puckett never knew, until contacted by reporters last month, was that a Spalding County grand jury indicted the officer for manslaughter three months later, and that the charge had stood for all of 24 hours. A day after the grand jury met, a judge threw out the indictment at the request of the local district attorney.

“It’s not right,” said Puckett. “He took a life, a life that he cannot give back.”

In five years, Griffin Sgt. Joseph Hudson is the only police officer in Georgia to be indicted for shooting a civilian, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation of 171 fatal police shootings across the state from 2010 to 2015.

The case, and many others examined by the AJC/Channel 2, illustrates the wide latitude police officers have to kill in the line of duty, and it shows how heavily the justice system is weighted in their favor in the rare instances when a fatal shooting case goes to a grand jury.

The AJC/Channel 2 investigation found that:

  • Not a single fatal police shooting since 2010 has gone to trial.
  • Two-thirds of police shooting cases never went to a grand jury because district attorneys used their discretion not to bring charges.
  • Of 48 cases that went to a grand jury, only nine involved the presentation of a criminal indictment. In the rest, the prosecutor simply asked the grand jury to determine if the shooting was justified or unjustified.

Most of the cases reviewed involved officers in dangerous situations shooting and killing dangerous people. But the absence of any prosecutions points to a remarkable conclusion: As far as Georgia’s criminal justice system is concerned, police officers are always legally justified when they shoot and kill a civilian in the line of duty.

Georgia is not unique in that regard. Nationally, only 54 officers have been charged for killing a civilian out of thousands of such shootings in the past decade, according to a review by the Washington Post.

But Georgia stands alone in one respect, the AJC and Channel 2 found: It is the only state in the nation that permits police officers facing possible criminal indictment to be inside the grand jury room for the entire proceeding and to make an unchallenged statement at the end, a special privilege that does not extend to private citizens.

“That is a problem,” said GBI Director Vernon Keenan, whose agency investigates most police shootings in Georgia. “That law gives an officer certain rights, but I don’t know that it serves the interest of justice in the end.”

Grand jury proceedings are secret and not open to the public, but the AJC was able to glean certain details related to police shooting cases. In the nine cases where district attorneys presented an indictment — roughly five percent of all fatal police shootings — the AJC identified eight where the officer was present in the grand jury room under Georgia’s special provision. The district attorney in the ninth case did not respond to questions.

In several cases where grand jurors or prosecutors confirmed that officers testified, the AJC and Channel 2 found evidence that the testimony played a factor in the outcome.

That was true in the case of the Euharlee officer who shot Christopher Roupe, an unarmed 17-year-old high school student, when the officer came to Roupe’s home looking for his father. A non-criminal grand jury found the officer’s actions unjustified. A criminal grand jury later voted not to indict the officer.

The officer did not testify in the first grand jury, but did in the second.

“We are the only people that go head-long into danger, with people who are armed, wanting to kill us or kill somebody else, and I think we should be afforded something in that regard.”

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills

The testimony of Union City Police Officer Luther Lewis played a significant role in two different criminal grand juries, with each grand jury choosing not to indict Lewis in the 2011 shooting death of 19-year-old Ariston Waiters, according to Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. Lewis gave lengthy, emotional statements to both grand juries, and Howard believes it cost him the case.

“You can imagine being able to give a statement without cross-examination,” Howard said. “It’s really a powerful weapon.”

Sgt. Hudson was the only officer who both testified at his grand jury and was indicted anyway, the AJC and Channel 2 found. But his case never went to trial because the local district attorney exercised the wide authority Georgia grants prosecutors and appealed to a judge to have the case dismissed.

“I would have prosecuted if I thought there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Spalding County District Attorney Scott Ballard.

Some in law enforcement say the special privilege afforded officers in the grand jury protects them from unwarranted prosecution, runaway grand juries or unscrupulous prosecutors.

“We are the only people that go head-long into danger, with people who are armed, wanting to kill us or kill somebody else,” said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, the past president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. “And I think we should be afforded something in that regard.”

Grand juries: By the numbers

171 people have been shot to death by police in Georgia since 2010.

Out of the 171 cases, 52 cases either went to a grand jury of some type or are pending before a grand jury.

Thirty-seven of those 52 cases were presented to a civil grand jury, and 9 of the cases were presented to a criminal grand jury.

Four cases are currently pending before a civil grand jury, and two cases are currently pending before a criminal grand jury after civil grand jury recommendation.

Thirty-seven cases were presented to "civil" grand jury that did not consider a specific charge or which was asked to rule on whether the shooting was justified. Of those 37, two will be presented to a criminal grand jury as well.

Nine cases were presented to a criminal grand jury -- a grand jury that considered a specific possible charge against the officer.

Out of all 171 cases, there was only one indictment, but the charges were dropped at the prosecution's request less than 24 hours later.

Sgt. Hudson: Case dismissed

The questions about why Walter Folds was shot and the way the case was dismissed have weighed on Geraldine Jackson ever since she served on the grand jury that indicted Sgt. Hudson in July 2012.

“For a long time, I couldn’t sleep,” the 75-year-old widow told the AJC and Channel 2. “I would wake up thinking about this man lost his life and it’s almost like nobody cared.”

Folds’ family said he was a generous man who could fix anything. Around Griffin, Folds, 53, was known as the “Mechanic Man.” But his second marriage crumbled in the months before his death.

Walter Folds’ marriage fell apart in the months before his death. He was on his way to meet his estranged wife in a Griffin park when he was met by police instead.

The night before he died, Folds cut his estranged wife with a box cutter. Distraught and suicidal, he arranged to meet her the next morning at Thomaston Mills Village Park in Griffin. But local police intervened and met him instead. Folds ran when he spotted police and drew them into a wooded area.

Sgt. Hudson struggled with Folds and they tumbled to the ground. Folds nicked him with a box cutter, once on the cheek and another on his hand.

By the time a second officer arrived, Hudson had Folds on the ground and was on his back, yelling at him to show his hands. The second officer had holstered his gun and was drawing his Taser to subdue Folds when Hudson shot Folds in the back of the head.

Spalding DA Ballard presented the case to a grand jury on July 11, 2012, but told grand jurors that the case would never go to trial “regardless of how we voted,” Jackson recalled.

Still, the grand jury voted to indict Hudson for involuntary manslaughter after hearing testimony that morning. By 1:22 p.m., Ballard had gone before Superior Court Judge Christopher Edwards to request the case be thrown out. He told the judge that Folds’ aggressive action toward the officer created insufficient evidence to get a conviction. The next day, the judge ordered the case dismissed.

Ballard does not deny telling grand jurors that he would not take the case forward, but he has no recollection of making such statements. He said he was “offended by (Sgt. Hudson’s) actions” and said that grand jurors made the right decision to indict the officer.

“I don’t know, with the benefit of hindsight, (that) it was necessary to shoot that man in the back of the head,” Ballard said. But he thought the officer would have won a jury trial.

“I didn’t think we’d get a conviction because of the self-defense argument,” Ballard said. “I believe the officer would be able to convince the jury he took action to defend his life after being scratched by a box cutter.”

Folds was carrying a yellow box cutter when he encountered Sgt. Joseph Hudson. Hudson said he was cut by the box cutter on his hand and on his face.

Folds’ family did not know how the case had played out in the grand jury until they were told about it recently by reporters. All they knew was that their brother and uncle had been shot in the head.

“We got his body back, they had to put his face back together,” said Puckett, his sister.

Now that they know a grand jury indicted the officer, they feel he should face some consequences.

“I want him tried,” Puckett said. “He needs to be put in jail for my brother. He can see his mother, his family, his sisters and all, but I can’t see my brother no more. I have to go to the grave.”

Sgt. Hudson remains on the job in Griffin. Earlier this year, the body camera he was wearing captured his heroic rescue of a three-year-old child from a burning house.

A special privilege

The special privilege that allows a police officer to go before the grand jury is rooted in a movement to protect public officials from prosecution that dates back nearly two centuries and to the earliest days of Georgia’s statehood.

It’s a case study of how a privilege granted to one special interest creeps and expands, decade after decade, to other special interest groups. The original law was adopted by the General Assembly in 1833 to protect any local justice of the peace from politically motivated prosecutions linked to their duties in office.

Over the years, the state legislators expanded and extended the law to include certain state officials, local government officials, probate judges and, in 1975, police officers, according to a 1989 Georgia State Bar Journal article that traced the history of the law.

In police shooting cases, this privilege can sometimes be the difference between an indictment and an officer being fully cleared to return to duty. Those familiar with grand juries in which police officers have testified say the officers routinely cry, appeal to emotion or tell grand jurors of their record of service to the community and how they feared for the lives.

“Grand juries … make decisions based on evidence and emotions,” said Ken Vance, executive director of Georgia’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. “The trump card is that officer gets to appear in front of a grand jury.”

Unlike a jury trial in open court where a defendant who testifies can be cross examined and impeached, grand juries in Georgia don’t allow that in police cases. The law doesn’t permit the prosecutor or grand jurors to ask any questions of officers or public officials who face possible indictment.

Those familiar with grand juries in which police officers have testified say the officers routinely cry, appeal to emotion or tell grand jurors of their record of service to the community and how they feared for the lives.

An officer can say anything without rebuttal. Sometimes they stretch the truth, according to prosecutors. DeKalb District Attorney Robert James said the officer’s statement has an impact when the case is a close call.

“In cases like that, an officer can come in and move the needle one way or the other,” James said.

David Rudolf, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in North Carolina, who was involved in national grand jury reforms in the 1990s, said just being in the grand jury room for the entire process affords officers a chance to connect with grand jurors in a personal way that can make it more difficult to indict them. It can also have a chilling effect on witnesses, he said.

Some states allow investigation targets to testify before the grand jury, but Rudolf said it’s unheard of in states he’s familiar with for someone to be allowed to give a statement that can’t be challenged.

“Wow,” he said. “I’ve honestly never heard of this. It seems to me it completely skews the grand jury process.”

Officer Lewis: Tears, emotion at grand jury

Officer Luther Lewis listened to two days of grand jury testimony in August as he stared at a possible criminal indictment for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager twice in the back. Three years before, a Fulton County grand jury had cleared the white Union City officer after he gave a lengthy and emotional statement that convinced grand jurors of his innocence.

Convinced Lewis broke the law and hoping to get a different result this time, Paul Howard’s office called more than a dozen witnesses, including several current or former Union City officers who offered testimony that contradicted Lewis’ story or raised questions about his actions the night of the shooting.

“Without the ability of the state to cross-examine that person or the grand jurors to ask questions, that emotion is generated in an unabated fashion.”

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard

Howard called the decision of some officers to testify against a fellow officer “historic” and “brave.” He said he knew he would need to present compelling evidence in anticipation of Lewis’ closing statement.

“We always felt we were fighting something that we knew would occur at the end,” Howard said. “There’s that 800-pound gorilla waiting for us.”

Lewis cried. At one point he hugged a fellow officer who testified. Lewis’ story boiled down to a simple argument that is commonly heard by grand jurors in police shooting cases: He had no choice but to fire his gun because his life was in danger.

The officer’s statement, by law, is the last piece of evidence the grand jury hears and comes at a critical point, that moment just before the jury breaks to deliberate and vote on the officer’s fate.

Howard has seen officers beg, cry and make outlandish claims. He’s seen verbal assaults on prosecutors and witnesses alike. Yet, like every prosecutor in Georgia, he has no power to rebut or challenge what often amounts to raw emotion spewing into the grand jury process.

“I believe it’s been a factor, and I believe it was a factor in this case,” Howard said. “Without the ability of the state to cross-examine that person or the grand jurors to ask questions, that emotion is generated in an unabated fashion.”

Officers Sasser and Simpson — ‘I felt bad for them’

Emotion was a factor in the 2011 Glynn County grand jury that cleared Glynn Sgt. Robert Sasser and Officer Michael Simpson, who shot and killed Caroline Small, a mother of two girls, the year before. The criminal case was hampered by a reluctant prosecutor, Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who had close political ties to the law enforcement.

Dramatic dashcam video showed eight police bullets piercing Small’s windshield as the unarmed woman was trapped between a utility pole and three police vehicles.

Glynn County Police Sgt. Corey Sasser and Officer Robert Simpson fired eight bullets through the windshield of Caroline Small’s Buick. The 35-year-old mother was shot in the head and lived for another week before she died.

The case hinged on the officers’ contention that Small’s vehicle, resting on its wheel rims after the tires were flattened in a chase, could have turned sharply and run them over. The GBI’s investigators determined that it would have been physically impossible for Small’s vehicle to achieve that feat.

The officers’ testimony at the end, claiming how they feared for their lives, overshadowed the factual elements of the case, according to two grand jurors interviewed by the AJC/Channel 2.

The officers’ testimony affected grand jurors to such a degree that one even gave an officer tissues, one grand juror said.

After they voted to clear the officers, several grand jurors gave them hugs. One grand juror who listened to the emotional testimony and voted to clear the officers later felt he’d made a mistake. He recalled being swept up in the emotion of the moment, only to regret his decision later.

“They were all crying and sitting there and I felt bad for them,” said Byron Bennett. “When they put on the show, the crying and everything else like that, it was kind of like pulling the jurors over toward their side.”

In the four years since his experience, Bennett’s overwhelming feeling was that he let Small’s family — and the cause of justice — down.

Cpl. Beth Gatny: A deadly mistake

It took two Bartow County grand juries before Euharlee’s Police Cpl. Beth Gatny was cleared of criminal wrongdoing for last year’s Valentine’s Day shooting death of 17-year-old Christopher Roupe.

Gatny mistakenly shot the teen while serving a probation arrest warrant on his father at their Euharlee trailer home. Evidence showed Gatny failed to identify herself as a police officer when she came to the door with her gun drawn. When the teen opened the door, she shot him in the chest, thinking he had a gun. He didn’t.

There were conflicting reports about whether the teen was holding a Wii video game controller or a toy gun. But Roupe was not holding a real gun.

Euharlee Cpl. Beth Gatny was serving a warrant for Christopher Roupe’s father at their trailer home last year when she mistakenly shot the teen at the front door. Tonya Jenkins, a neighbor, said the shooting traumatized the community.

How the case unfolded in the two grand juries demonstrates the power of an officer’s presence in the grand jury and the prosecutor’s ability to influence the process.

Bartow District Attorney Rosemary Greene elected to take Roupe’s case to a “civil” grand jury, a practice used by some district attorneys in police shooting cases.

In a civil grand jury, the grand jurors are asked only to determine if the officer was justified or unjustified in shooting his or her weapon. The proceeding does not carry any criminal charges, and is used to obtain a verdict from the local community about whether an officer crossed the line.

Georgia law does not require the officer’s presence at a civil grand jury, and Gatny did not attend the civil grand jury that met in April 2014 to consider her case.

The foreperson of the grand jury, Cathleen Cray, said she did not believe Gatny committed a crime, but at the end of two days of testimony, the majority of her fellow grand jurors found the shooting unauthorized.

Cray said she thinks the vote would have come out differently had the officer been there and testified.

“If we would have been able to hear her side, the majority of the grand jurors would have been able to realize, like I felt, it was a horrible, tragic mistake,” Cray said. “I can’t imagine how she feels.”

Officer cleared

Cray’s grand jury recommended that DA Greene take further action. Greene presented the case to a second grand jury in July 2014, and drew up an indictment for involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct.

“I would not say I was seeking an indictment,” Greene said. “I don’t know that I would say that about any case that I have. That’s not my job. My job is to make sure justice is served.”

Greene called as an expert witness a well-known and respected law enforcement training expert in Georgia, J. Dale Mann, the former director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center.

Mann concluded the shooting was a terrible — but lawful — tragedy. He presented a detailed overview of the historical and legal standards governing an officer’s use of deadly force. He outlined the questions grand jurors should consider as they weigh whether or not to indict.

“When they hear the officer scream, when he’s shot, you can see on their faces this is real. This is not made up. This is not play time. This is not TV. This is real. We just saw an officer killed by this guy.”

Former director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center J. Dale Mann

But the most memorable aspect of his presentation was a dramatic dash cam video that showed in stark detail the dangers a police officer can face.

The wrenching video showed the 1998 shooting death of Laurens County Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Dinkheller during a traffic stop by a deranged Vietnam veteran. Audio from the recording captures Dinkheller’s agonizing screams as the veteran shoots him with a high-powered rifle.

Mann believed the video showed that “there are two sides to this,” demonstrating the dangers an officer can face in even routine traffic stops.

“Grand jurors are not legal technicians, they’re common people,” he said. “When they hear the officer scream, when he’s shot, you can see on their faces this is real. This is not made up. This is not play time. This is not TV. This is real. We just saw an officer killed by this guy.”

Neither Mann nor Greene believe the video prejudiced the Bartow grand jury and they don’t think they drew any conclusions about the Roupe case from seeing it.

Gatny sat in the grand jury and offered a statement after all the evidence was presented. The second grand jury voted not to indict her on either charge and cleared her of criminal wrongdoing.

“I think the second grand jury had the benefit of having a more complete presentation of what happened that night with that young man and the officer,” Greene said. “The entire thing is a tragedy and there’s not anything that we can do to bring him back.”

‘A conflict of interest’

Gatny was fired from the Euharlee force last year. Roupe’s family settled a wrongful death federal lawsuit with the city for $700,000 in July of this year, according to city and court records.

One of their attorneys, Craig T. Jones, a civil rights lawyer who has handled excessive force cases for decades, did not comment on the specifics of Roupe’s shooting or the criminal case. He said police shooting deaths are challenging to prosecute, but he has observed that the close professional ties between prosecutors and police can influence how a case is handled.

“They tend to split the baby,” said Jones. “There’s a conflict of interest in their representing the interest of the deceased and prosecuting the police. Because of this conflict, they are not prosecuting the case fully.”

Tonya Jenkins, a former neighbor of Roupe’s, described the teen as a smart, good kid. She testified at the first grand jury and believed the officer should have faced some charge for her negligence.

Jenkins said the shooting traumatized the community. Roupe’s family and several others moved away afterwards. Children cried for weeks and were scared to go outside to play. They couldn’t believe a police officer would just walk up and shoot their friend.

“It was conflicting and the kids didn’t understand,” said Jenkins, who is afraid to let her kids answer a knock at the door. “It was rough. To this day, it’s still rough.”