Shot in the Back: Union City police shooting death gets new look

The controversial 2011 shooting death of a black teenager by a white Union City police officer was back before a Fulton County grand jury Wednesday, more than three years after grand jurors cleared the officer in a process that overlooked key evidence.

District Attorney Paul Howard in May reopened the 2011 shooting death case of 19-year-old Ariston Waiters following an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News that raised questions about whether the shooting was justified.

Luther Lewis, the Union City officer, claimed the teen went for his gun before Lewis shot him twice in the back. Waiters was face down on the ground with one hand cuffed when Lewis says he reached for his gun. But the supervising lieutenant on the scene minutes after the Dec. 14, 2011 shooting told reporters a different story that contradicts the official police account and casts doubt on the officer’s justification for pulling the trigger.

The supervisor, Chris McElroy, said Lewis didn’t mention anything about a struggle for his gun in statements made right after the shooting. McElroy said Lewis told him he shot Waiters when he was on the ground and refused to show his hands.

McElroy said his chief directed him not to write a statement about what he witnessed at the scene. He was never interviewed by GBI agents during their original investigation of the shooting, and he was not called to testify before the original Fulton grand jury that voted not to indict Lewis when it considered the case in May 2012.

The shooting spurred protests in the South Fulton community but never garnered the national attention of more recent police violence cases in Ferguson, North Charleston and Baltimore.

Following the AJC/Channel 2 report in May, there were renewed calls by Ariston’s mother and others for justice in the case. Howard’s office and the GBI re-investigated the case and the DA seems ready to pursue the case with a new vigor. Howard’s office is expected to call a number of witnesses who never testified to the grand jury three years ago.

McElroy is among them. He was subpoened and showed up at the Fulton DA’s office Wednesday afternoon on the first day of the grand jury proceeding in the Waiters case.

“I think Mr. Waiters died senselessly and his family deserves some closure,” McElroy told the AJC and Channel 2 in May. “I just don’t think it’s right. It’s not sat right with me from the very first time I arrived on the scene.”

Lewis declined to be interviewed for the story in May.

Observers said Lewis was at the courthouse on Wednesday.

Police officers in America are granted wide latitude by the legal system to fire their weapons on duty, and it is rare for an officer to be charged or indicted for a shooting. In Georgia, officers have the special legal privilege to sit in on the entire grand jury proceeding, hear all the evidence and then make a closing statement that can’t be challenged by the prosecutor.

Lewis sat through the May 2012 grand jury, and grand jurors considered an eight-count indictment prepared by DA Howard’s office, including felony murder, false imprisonment and violation of oath of office. They chose not to indict Lewis on any of the charges, and several grand jurors later told reporters Lewis’s closing statement was compelling.

He resigned from the Union City police force in 2014, but the department never conducted an internal review and deemed Lewis’s actions the night of the shooting as justified.

The AJC/Channel 2 investigation uncovered other incidents where Lewis used his weapon or exhibited erratic behavior while on patrol as well as concerns from some officers in the department that Lewis, an Afghanistan war veteran, might have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s unclear how much, if any, of that history will be presented to the grand jury.

The grand jury proceeding will continue today and could go into Friday.

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