AJC data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.
Log on to myAJC.com to read the AJC’s previous coverage of the Ariston Waiters case and investigative reports about police shootings in Georgia.
A former Union City officer who fatally shot a 19-year-old black man in 2011 is now under state investigation for allegedly lying while applying for a policing job in Savannah this summer.
Officer Luther Lewis failed to disclose the shooting death of Ariston Waiters when he applied for a job as a uniformed officer with the Savannah Airport Commission and “was untruthful in providing information concerning former employment records,” documents show.
The Savannah Airport Commission fired Lewis on July 20, just one week after he started carrying a gun and badge for the department. It later filed a report with the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (P.O.S.T.) about the termination.
“Based on deception during the interview process, as well as supervisor recommendation, we are terminating your employment,” Savannah Airport Commission Chief W.E. Wilkins, who took part in the interview, wrote in a letter to Lewis dated July 28.
Lewis’ credibility with Fulton County grand jurors was instrumental in convincing them in two separate proceedings that his life was in danger when he shot Waiters while attempting to handcuff the unarmed teen.
But in Savannah, he misled those who were about to hire him, according to records submitted to P.O.S.T. Records show he failed to disclose information about the Waiters case, which was reopened in May following an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation. The stories detailed new evidence that cast doubt on the official story Lewis told to justify the shooting and highlighted concerns officers in Union City had about Lewis's credibility.
Lewis did not respond to a phone message on Monday.
His firing in Savannah came two weeks before he appeared before a Fulton grand jury for a second time and asserted that he had no choice when he shot Waiters twice in the back. There were no witnesses to the shooting.
That panel heard the case Aug. 5 and 6, and after Lewis gave a persuasive, emotional statement, grand jurors voted to clear him.
Law enforcement in the United States regards truthfulness from police officers as a central qualification in a field where they are expected to uphold and enforce the law as well as provide truthful testimony in court cases.
“Lying is a character flaw,” said Ken Vance, executive director of P.O.S.T. “It’s a serious character flaw when you wear a badge and have the say-so of a person’s liberty….It taints your credibility in front of a court.”
Vance said his agency has filed criminal charges in the past against officers who were untruthful on a job application. Lying in the course of official capacities is a serious issue, he said.
Savannah employers said they discovered undisclosed aspects of Lewis’ record in a background check during his probationary employment period. The department searched his name on Google and found the 2011 shooting and learned that new evidence had led Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard to reopen the case.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Atlanta is also re-examining Lewis’ role in the Waiters shooting, according to Waiters’ family and legal team, who met with U.S. Attorney John Horn Aug. 14.
Howard first tried and failed to indict Lewis for murder in 2012, and the former officer’s lengthy statement at that proceeding also helped sway grand jurors to clear him. Georgia law affords officers the special legal privilege of witnessing the grand jury hearing and giving a statement at the end that cannot be challenged by prosecutors.
Howard said he was not told about Lewis’ Savannah termination, even though it happened just two weeks before the case was presented to the second grand jury.
“Wow,” Howard said on Monday when reporters told him about it.
In that second grand jury hearing, Howard said Lewis made certain assertions in his sworn statement about his employment. Howard said he is going to review his statement to see if Lewis was truthful.
“That’s really something I’m going to follow up upon,” Howard said. “When those officers testify before a grand jury they can say all kinds of things that are not true. And the DAs, we have no power to overturn and to cross-examine them about what they are saying.”
Waiters was shot on the night of Dec. 14, 2011, after Lewis answered a call about shots fired at a teen gathering in Union City. When Lewis arrived, he saw Waiters running and gave chase. The teen, however, was unarmed and had not committed a crime, Howard said, and Lewis had no grounds to place Waiters under arrest.
Lewis maintained that he shot Waiters because the teen grabbed his handgun. His family and Howard maintain that Lewis committed a crime when he shot Waiters twice in the back as he was on the ground with one hand cuffed.
The second grand jury heard from officers in Union City who contradicted Lewis’ statements about the shooting or raised concerns about his credibility. One of the chief witnesses, Officer Chris McElroy, was a supervisor on the scene just moments after the shooting.
He said Lewis told him he shot the teen because he would not show his hands and that Lewis did not mention a struggle for his gun at the scene. It wasn’t until later that evening, after Lewis met with the Union City police chief, that McElroy said he heard the story of a struggle for Lewis’ gun. He said the discrepancies had weighed on his conscience since the shooting. He broke his silence this year and told the AJC/Channel 2 about what he heard that night.
Vance said P.O.S.T.’s review could expand beyond Lewis’ credibility in the Savannah hiring process if a pattern emerged of other untruthful acts. Vance, a former police chief, said chiefs do not want to hire officers who aren’t truthful.
“If he lied on an application, then is that person fair game for lying anywhere else?” Vance said. “Can those questions be legitimately asked? Absolutely. It’s up to a jury or (the) P.O.S.T. Council or whatever to decide. When you have a history, that doesn’t bode well for you.”
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