U.S. Attorney John Horn will open a criminal investigation into the 2011 police shooting death of a black teen who was shot twice in the back by a former Union City officer as the teen lay on the ground with one hand cuffed, the teen’s family said Friday.
Horn’s decision opens a new front in the legal fight of Freda Waiters who has maintained her son, Ariston, was murdered by former Union City police officer Luther Lewis on the night of Dec. 14, 2011. Waiters was unarmed.
Horn, the lead federal prosecutor for the Georgia’s Northern District, met with Waiters and her legal team at the Richard B. Russell federal building on Friday afternoon, one week after a Fulton grand jury chose not to indict Lewis for a second time in three years.
The renewed attention in the case follows an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation in May that uncovered new evidence and raised questions about the official version told to justify the shooting. Horn’s office declined to comment about the meeting.
“I just want the right thing done for my son,” Waiters said after the meeting. “I want truth and the facts brought out. I just want justice.”
A call to Lewis was not returned before deadline. He has declined interview requests for months.
Freda Waiters hired private investigator TJ Ward to help with her son’s case. He was at Friday’s meeting and provided federal prosecutors additional information from his investigation. Ward said Horn was familiar with the case and said he was aware that the FBI had been investigating it for several months.
Ward said Horn seemed interested in both the events surrounding the shooting and evidence of possible cover-ups in the Union City Police department after the shooting.
“They assured us they would look at it in-depth and whatever federal laws that apply that have been violated will be satisfied,” said Ward. “They assured us they were already aware (that) the FBI has interviewed the whistleblower and other officers in Union City.”
Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard said after last week’s grand jury decision that he remained convinced that Lewis committed a crime and violated Waiters’ rights when he wrongly tried to arrest him on the night of the shooting. Officers had been responding to a shots fired call in a neighborhood where a group of teenagers had gathered. But Waiters had committed no crime, Howard said, and Lewis had no right to try to arrest him.
Howard said unlike Georgia law, which allows officers to sit in the entire grand jury process and offer an unchallenged closing statement, the federal system does not offer accused officers such a privilege. He said he thought Lewis’s statement influenced the outcome of the case.
Craig Jones, an Atlanta civil rights attorney who has been involved with excessive force cases involving police for 25 years, said federal prosecutors are more likely to be insulated from the political pressures that are often faced by local district attorneys when they bring cases against police officers.
He said that proving an officer committed a crime is still a challenge, even in shootings where the facts don’t look good for the police.
“You have to prove that he used his badge, used his uniform, used his authority to bully a citizen and violate his civil rights,” Jones said. “That is tough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”
He said a federal prosecutor in such cases may also look at whether the aftermath of the shooting led to witness tampering, a cover-up or other issues that may have obstructed justice.
“With the recent publicity of the these shootings, it’s a much more level playing field than it has been historically,” Jones said. “Jurors are much less inclined to give officers the benefit of the doubt than they may have been in the past. This issue has come to the forefront and people are much more aware than they have been before that some officers do abuse their authority.”