ATLANTA — In a verdict that brought tears to both sides of an Atlanta courtroom Tuesday, a jury convicted a police officer of lying to cover up his role in the fatal shooting of a 92-year-old woman.
Arthur Bruce Tesler, 42, is the only officer to face trial in the death of Kathryn Johnston, felled by a hail of bullets after plainclothes narcotics officers burst into her home in November 2006. He faces as many as five years in prison.
After deliberating more than three days, the state court jury acquitted Tesler of violating his oath of office and of false imprisonment under color of legal process. If convicted of all three charges, he could have faced as many as 20 years in prison.
Unlike two officers who testified against him, he was on duty outside Johnston's house and never fired a shot.
The Rev. Markel Hutchins, a community activist who represents Johnston's family, described the verdict as "bittersweet."
"Juries typically don't convict police officers," he said. ". . . Nothing can bring back Kathryn Johnston, but to the extent that her life can be used to make sure that no more citizens are violated, we think it is a step in the right direction."
Others were more blunt.
"Justice has not been done," said State Rep. "Able" Mabel Thomas. "This officer lied, this officer was part of the coverup. Blood was on his hands."
Johnston's shooting stirred up a whirlwind of protest about aggressive policing in her predominantly African American neighborhood of southwest Atlanta and triggered a federal probe into corruption in the Atlanta Police Department.
Last year, state prosecutors dropped murder, burglary and assault charges against two officers in exchange for their cooperation with a federal investigation into what the U.S. attorney here has described as a "culture of misconduct." Jason R. Smith and Gregg Junnier pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and federal civil rights charges. Junnier faces 10 years behind bars and Smith faces 12, but they have yet to be sentenced. The federal probe continues.
The shooting occurred two days before Thanksgiving, when officers burst through Johnston's front door without knocking after an informant provided false information that drugs were being sold at her house. She fired a single shot from a .38-caliber revolver but did not hit anyone. The officers fired 39 shots, striking Johnston five or six times.
Prosecutors say the officers lied to a magistrate to get the no-knock warrant, claiming that a confidential informant had made a purchase at the address and that the house was fitted with electronic surveillance. Both claims were false.
According to testimony, officers handcuffed Johnston as she lay dying, planted three bags of marijuana in her basement, and asked an informant to pretend that the officers had sent him to her home earlier to purchase drugs.
In his testimony, Tesler, a junior detective who had worked on the narcotics unit for less than a year, admitted that he had lied to help cover up the botched raid. But he said he did not know that Smith had lied to a judge to obtain the no-knock warrant.
In closing statements Thursday, his attorney, William McKenney, argued that Tesler was just a rookie who went along with the coverup because he felt intimidated by his more experienced partners.
Since the shooting, the Atlanta Police Department has tried to address claims that narcotics officers routinely lied to obtain search warrants and planted drugs at crime scenes so they could make arrest quotas. Police Chief Richard J. Pennington disbanded the narcotics unit, then reformulated it and doubled its size. The department also introduced more stringent requirements for how officers can obtain search warrants.
Last year, the Atlanta City Council created a citizen review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct.
On Tuesday, Fulton County Dist. Atty. Paul Howard said he hoped the Tesler verdict would bring "some closure" to Johnston's family. With the three officers involved in the shooting incarcerated, he said, "as a community, we should be pleased."
Jenny Jarvie can be reached at [email protected].