Convinced the FBI’s investigation into the fatal shooting of Jimmy Atchison by a federal joint task force has been neither thorough nor fair, the lawyer for the Atlanta man’s family said she is demanding the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division conduct a separate probe.
The Civil Rights Division plans an independent review, but of the FBI’s findings. BJay Pak, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, has asked the GBI to do the same. That process is underway, GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard previously said his office is also looking at the case, though he too will be largely dependent on the FBI’s investigation of its own task force.
“This (FBI) investigation was over before it started,” said attorney Tanya Miller, who represents Atchison’s relatives.
Atchison, wanted on an armed robbery charge for allegedly stealing a cellphone at gunpoint, fled to a friend’s apartment after heavily armed officers appeared at his door on Jan. 22.
He was discovered hiding in a closet by Atlanta Police Department investigator Sung Kim, who had been assigned to the FBI fugitive task force. Kim, for reasons unknown, shot and killed Atchison, who witnesses say was unarmed. No guns were recovered in the apartment. Protests have followed, with concerned citizens insisting that Kim be held accountable. And he will be, to an extent.
But the severity of that accountability remains to be seen.
Miller said the FBI has refused to share any information with the family and only recently asked to arrange a sit-down with them.
“The fact that the Inspection Division has finished its investigation and sent the results out for review by other involved agencies, before expressing any interest in receiving ‘any additional information’ from the victim’s family, smacks of a disingenuous attempt to placate rather than truly investigate,” Miller wrote to FBI Special Agent in Charge J.D. Hacker in a letter dated March 26. “And if we are frank, how complete can even a ‘whitewash’ of Jimmy’s killing be without any communication with, or background or input from, his family?”
Bret Williams, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York and the Atlanta office, said those interviews should have already happened. And there are other elements in this case that could pique the Civil Rights Division’s interest, he said.
“The police officer in this case has, let’s say, an interesting background,” said Williams, now a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta. Kim, a 26-year APD veteran, has been the subject of two citizen complaints, neither sustained, and six internal investigations, including the Atchison case, according to his personnel file. “And you’ve got a person fleeing who is chased down and killed,” Williams said.
Still, the bar is set high for Civil Rights Division involvement. To pursue a case, the division must be able to prove a potential defendant “acted with bad purpose or evil motive” leading to a person’s death, Williams said. “When you’re talking about police officers, it’s difficult to prove they set out that day intending to kill someone.”
Under the leadership of former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the division became much less aggressive in pursuing cases against law enforcement. It is unclear whether Sessions’ successor, William Barr, will maintain that directive.
Meanwhile, DA Howard has already expressed concerns about the FBI’s handling of the investigation. He recently warned the family that he won’t have access to the weapon that fired the fatal bullet or the physical evidence taken from the scene.
Howard is still smarting from another recent fatal shooting by a federal joint task force. Just one month before Atchison’s death, Howard filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice accusing federal authorities of hindering his office’s investigation into the 2016 death of 26-year-old Jamarion Robinson. The onetime Clark Atlanta University football player, who had struggled with schizophrenia, was shot 59 times by members of the U.S. Marshals Regional Fugitive Task Force.
Howard accused the Justice Department of refusing to release requested documents about the shooting and blocking his investigators from interviewing officers involved in Robinson’s death for more than a year and a half.
The FBI could conceivably provide more transparency than the U.S. Marshals, but Howard doesn’t sound optimistic.
“We will conduct an investigation. But, because of the circumstances that I’ve outlined, it will probably take more time and present a greater degree of difficulty in reaching a conclusion,” the DA said in a statement.
All this assumes wrongdoing by officer Kim. Following the shooting, Kim was placed on paid administrative duty pending the outcome of the investigations, including one by the APD’s Office of Professional Standards. The office can’t bring criminal charges, but it can impose sanctions, including dismissal.
Miller said she’s realistic about the Atchison family’s chances of receiving justice.
“Look, we can only hope that agencies in charge of civil rights will honor their duties,” she said. “The FBI has done a tremendous disservice to this family. We want someone without any dog in the fight to look at this case.”
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