U.S. Attorney Opens Inquiry Into Fatal Police Shooting of Atlanta Teen After 2nd Grand Jury Fails to Indict
U.S. Attorney John Horn met with Freda Waiters, T.J. Ward, and Marcus Coleman for more than an hour at Atlanta's Richard B. Russell Federal Building, a week after a second Fulton County grand jury declined to indict former Union City police officer Luther Lewis for the murder of unarmed black youth Ariston Waiters in 2011. Horn vowed to open an investigation into the controversial fatal shooting.
Atlanta, GA, August 17, 2015 (Newswire.com) - Acting United States Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, John Horn, met with Freda Waiters, private investigator T.J. Ward, and community activist Marcus Coleman for more than an hour at Atlanta's Richard B. Russell Federal Building, a week after a second Fulton County grand jury declined to indict former Union City police officer Luther Lewis for the murder of unarmed black youth Ariston Waiters. New evidence revealing cover-up, corruption, and racial misconduct in Atlanta’s Union City Police Department, presented in testimony by past and present officers and expert witnesses failed to convince a mostly white grand jury there was any probable cause to believe that a crime had been committed in the death of the nineteen-year-old youth.
Freda Waiters was certain her only son’s death was unjustified. A wrongful death civil action was filed against Union City on behalf of Waiter’s newborn daughter; Ajaleh Waiters, now 4, was awarded $750,000. Luther Lewis lost his job, but was not prosecuted for his actions. “It was never about money,” stated Waiters, “I can’t stop fighting until I get justice for Ariston.” A Fulton County grand jury declined to indict the officer for murder and seven other felonies in May, 2012. Amassing copies all of the evidence in the case, she sought out and hired renown Private Investigator T.J. Ward, a former Union City police detective and internal affairs officer commander. “I knew some of the officers personally,” maintains Ward. “These were good men and would talk to me truthfully.” Ward recorded the conversations, documenting an intentional cover-up of the facts surrounding Waiter’s death; Georgia's wiretapping law permits “one-party consent” for purposes of making audio recordings of conversations. He also scoured through more than 4,500 pages of discovery in the case.
According to former Union City Sargent Michael Burdette, “[Police Chief Chuck] Odom knew what happened. He’d boasted that Luther Lewis would be in jail now if it weren’t for him covering it up. He knew we’d tell the truth, so no one asked [us].” Burdette continued, “If an officer were to have filed a report, they’d have lost their job – or worse. If you weren’t in Odom’s inner circle, he’d find a way to terminate you. I must have seen at least twenty [officers] terminated without cause. Odom would file a C-11 [Change of Status Form] and get your POST record revoked. Then you’d never be able to get police work anymore.” Burdette, himself, was such a statistic. “He’d even threatened to take away their pensions,” stated Burdette. In his own defense, Burdette fought back, filing an EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) action against the department – and won.
In February, Freda Waiters, T.J. Ward, and Deacon Joe Beasley brought copies of the recorded officer statements to a meeting with Fulton County District Attorney (DA) Paul Howard Jr., requesting the opportunity for a second grand jury hearing. While considered a rarity for a case to be re-opened and a second grand jury convened, Ward contends, “This case is unique. Not only was the manner in which Ariston Waiter killed improbable, according to the testimony of Luther Lewis himself, but other officers in the department who witnessed the arrest were specifically instructed not to report it by Union City's Chief of Police.” They declined to mention the recordings after Howard jokingly acknowledged the extent of police corruption in Union City, without offering any plan for rectification, according to Waiters. "He admitted to us he'd covered up for Odom in another case," stated Waiters, "as if it were nothing." Instead, Ward delivered the recordings to an Atlanta FBI special investigator, then to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSBTV-2.
Even without the recordings, Ward was convinced the evidence already in hand was enough to indict Lewis on criminal charges, including felony murder. “There’s no question that Lewis is lying about what happened that day,” stated Ward. “It’s impossible for the events that were documented by the officer to have actually taken place. The Department of Justice’s own expert witness, Michael Levine, agreed. Presented at both the initial and second Fulton grand jury, Levine testified that: "[O]fficer Luther Lewis' arrest procedures resulting in his use of deadly force in causing the death of Ariston Waiters, up to and including the actual firing of two bullets into Waiters back as he lay face down, were substandard to a degree that is unacceptable as professional error and contrary to all standards I have ever been exposed to, as well as Lewis’ departmental mandates." Levine continued, "[T]he official statements made by Officer Luther Lewis were self-contradictory and inconsistent with forensic evidence to a degree that, reviewing this matter in my former DOJ capacities, I would recommend grand jury consideration for criminal charges relating to false official statements."
National and international news media publicized Ward's investigation revealing disciplinary incidents involving Lewis removed and withheld from the first panel and recent evidence which failed to support a claim by Lewis that Waiters had somehow touched his gun. Department of Criminal Justice DNA expert witness, Professor Greg Hampikian, dismissed the original claim that Ariston Waiters' fingerprint was on the weapon, a statement made to the first grand jury. It was recently clarified to say that "some of Ariston Waiters' body fluid” was found on the weapon, instead. “This is horribly problematic,” declared Hampikian, “as the fluid found does not exclude hundreds of thousands of mixtures possibly present. Even at best, 1 out of every 25 individuals would be suspect by this notion – my own DNA is a close match.” He noted that there were two other analysts providing testimony: one from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and another from Cellmark, a private DNA lab often used in Georgia cases. “The contention that Mr. Waiters fluids were present stems from bad training or incompetence,” Hampikian concluded, “it’s unfortunately a national problem.”
Howard responded to media inquiries pledging to “hold someone accountable” for Waiters death, and empaneled the second grand jury. Over a two-day period, more than twenty witnesses were called to testify. Expert witnesses Hampikian and Levine were both present, as were multiple Union City officers previously barred from the investigation. Freda Waiters was introduced to the panel, but could not address them. T.J. Ward was subpoenaed to testify, but not called in to the panel. Grand jury testimony portrayed Lewis with a history of disciplinary incidents documented as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder); fellow officers attributed it to his service in Afghanistan. In a similar vein, PTSD was tied to the shooting death of "American Sniper" author Chris Kyle and another man on February 2, 2013. The second grand jury also heard also testimony that Lewis had threatened another unarmed black youth at gunpoint, without cause, just weeks before he killed Waiters.
Most facts surrounding the case remained undisputed:
- Waiters neither committed, nor was accused of unlawful activity.
- Lewis attempted to arrest Waiters without probable cause.
- Waiters' hand was cuffed behind his back before Lewis drew his gun.
- Lewis had a holstered TASER, which he neither drew nor used.
- Waiters was shot twice through his spine at point-blank range by Lewis, December 14, 2011.
- Outside those on the officer himself, no other weapons were alleged, observed, nor found.
- Lewis testified he selected a “kill zone shot,” with the intent to end Waiters' life.
Following testimony, Lewis and his counsel were able to present their case in secrecy before the panel. In Georgia, only an accused public official has the right to be present at such a hearing – and even then, cross-examination is not permissible. In the end, a second “No Bill” to indict was entered by the twenty white and four black members of the grand jury on August 6, 2015, indicating that there was not enough evidence to return an indictment on any charge. Ward noted that Lewis testified for an hour and 45 minutes, including emotional subjects such as his medical problems and military service. After the decision was announced, DA Howard publicly acknowledged Waiters' arrest was “illegal,” then sent out a press release thanking “the Union City Police Officers who came forward and testified in this case.” Inexplicably, DA Howard refused to drop murder charges against another white police officer, Tommy Atzert, two months prior, even though the grand jury cleared the officer of wrong-doing. Bearing striking similarities to the case against Lewis, Atzert shot an unarmed black man, Maurice Hampton, in the back during a traffic stop – killing him.
As District Attorney, Howard is charged with the prosecution of all felony violations in Fulton County, Georgia. Homicide of any variety is a felony – without statute of limitations. The American Bar Association (ABA) further provides, “The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice.... When inadequacies or injustices in the substantive or procedural law come to the prosecutor's attention, he or she should stimulate efforts for remedial action.” DA Howard’s own admission demonstrates the panel could not have been properly informed of their duties by the prosecutors and Superior Court judges. Georgia code OCGA §15-12-74 declares “…it is their duty as jurors to make presentments of any violations of the laws which they may know to have been committed at any previous time which are not barred by the statute of limitations.” Yet, there was no dispute that violations occurred; DA Howard admitted it, himself. The grand jury “No Bill” leaves Ariston Waiters’ family, including mother Freda and young daughter, no opportunity to seek justice in a state court of law.
Former Police Chief and Judge, Paul Nally, a leading expert on Georgia grand juries, contends that Lewis emotional presentations before the panel were inconsistent with equal protection clauses of the U.S. and Georgia Constitutions. “This case demonstrates the problems associated with grand jurors not properly understanding or being properly informed of their statutory duties," Nally stated. "Ordinarily, defense topics not directly related to the charges in question should be left to the inquiry of a trial jury except in cases where there is an abuse of government police power. The grand jury could have returned a Presentment on a lesser included charge. Furthermore," concluded Nally, "it appears that the Jurors were not informed of, or allowed to entertain an inquiry into, the possible criminal negligence of the governmental corporation for which Lewis worked.”
On Friday, Freda Waiters, T.J. Ward, and Marcus Coleman, left the meeting with Acting U.S. Attorney John Horn with a vow to open an investigation into the controversial shooting. Four investigators with the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division participated, as well. Even before the meeting, DA Howard offered, that he, too, may ask the U.S. Attorney's Office to investigate federal charges in the case. "They were very familiar about this case already and they will continue with the efforts and information our office has just given them," stated Ward, following the meeting. "I felt very encouraged about our meeting today," said Waiters. "I continue to pray and search for answers, but will never know the truth without a full and fair trial against Luther Lewis and Chuck Odom for their parts in my son Ariston's murder."
Private Investigator T.J. Ward has been featured in many national and international news venues involving the Natalee Holloway investigation, including Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition, FOX, MSNBC, CNN, Good Morning America, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Washington Post, and Vanity Fair. He is the founder and CEO of Investigative Consultants International (ICI) in Atlanta, Georgia, and presently in pre-production on a non-scripted investigative series of his own, the Justice Ward.