Norris Speed, who murdered an Atlanta police officer 25 years ago, was sentenced Thursday to life without parole to avoid a retrial that might have ended with a death sentence.
Speed was convicted and sentenced to die for the Dec. 21, 1991, murder of Officer Niles Johantgen, known as “the Russian” in the Thomasville Heights neighborhood he patrolled. But in 2010, a court in Butts County, where Death Row is located, ordered that Speed be re-sentenced because a bailiff had read to the jury Bible verses that condoned the death penalty. The bailiff also prayed with jurors and even asked them for contributions to his ministry.
Until then, Speed was housed on Georgia’s death row.
A friend of Johantgen’s family read a statement from the dead officer’s widow before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall pronounced Speed’s punishment. It stated: “I want to tell you it was a nightmare that never ended. It has taken me and my boys decades to feel whole again.”
In Georgia, only a jury can decide if a death sentence is to be imposed , so Fulton County prosecutors would have had to present their original case against Speed to a different set of jurors so they could decide if he should be sentenced to die. Witnesses who testified in the 1993 trial may not recall the events around Johantgen’s shooting death.
Since the punishment of life without parole was not an option a quarter-century ago, Speed had to agree to the sentence or go to trial and risk another death sentence.
Speed, in a series of telephone interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, expressed remorse for what he had done but also insisted that he hoped that someday he would be free. In those conversations, he said he wanted a trial because a jury might decide he could be eligible for parole at some point.
Speed said he wanted to work with children and teenagers at risk of becoming criminals.
“I’ve spent all my adult life incarcerated,” Speed, now 45, said in a Jan. 5 telephone interview. “I want to repay my debt to society, but how can I when I’m incarcerated? I’ve learned the value of life on death row.”
According to testimony in 1993, there were open drug sales with thousands of dollars changing hands each week in the low-income housing complex, Thomasville Heights. The sound of gunfire was common.
On his strolls through Thomasville Heights, Johantgen would occasionally line up as many as six or seven men against a wall and search them for drugs, witnesses testified in Speed’s trial.
Just before the shooting, Speed had complained that police took $20,000 in drugs and cash that belonged to him when they raided his mother’s apartment. Witnesses also testified that there was tension between Speed and Johantgen because the officer had allegedly threatened to “catch him dirty” so he could arrest Speed.
On the night of the shooting, Johantgen had stopped three men in the parking lot of the housing project and was searching them for drugs when Speed walked up.
Speed shot Johantgen in the back of the head and continued firing after the officer had fallen to the ground, witnesses said.
“I want people to know I’m not a monster. I’m someone who has feelings, who has remorse for the people I hurt,” Speed said in a Jan. 18 interview. “I’m aware how much my actions turned his family’s world upside down. I’m aware that I took somebody’s child.”