Grand jury clears Georgia officer in teen’s shooting death

After hearing emotional testimony from a former Union City police officer, a Fulton County grand jury Thursday decided he should not face criminal charges for the 2011 shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.

The decision marks the second time that a grand jury has cleared Luther Lewis in the death of Ariston Waiters. A 2012 grand jury made the same decision, but District Attorney Paul Howard decided to re-open the case after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 investigation brought new evidence to light.

Sources say Howard called Waiters’ mother, Freda, and she is devastated by the decision.

“This is very hard,” said Waiters’ family spokesman TJ Ward. “It’s sad for Ms. Waiters. She is very upset. She is very tired and worn out. She cannot believe this happened.

“She lost the only precious thing she ever had. She had one son.”

The grand jurors were quickly ushered out of the courthouse after the hearing ended and would not comment. No one from Howard’s office was available to speak with reporters or discuss the decision, but shortly before 10 p.m. his public affairs director provided a brief statement.

In part, Howard praised Union City police officers who came forward to testify. “I believe such testimony was not only brave but historic as well,” the statement said.

But it concluded by saying that, “Our system of laws demands with the ‘No Bill’ by the Grand Jury that we move on from this case and focus on the job of keeping our community safe.”

No information was available on what potential charges Howard’s office presented to the grand jury.

Lewis was unavailable for comment.

He was responding to a report of teens fighting and shots fired on the night of Dec. 14, 2011 when he apparently saw Waiters, who was 19, running away from the scene and gave chase. Lewis drew his gun and ordered Waiters to the ground.

As Waiters was lying face down on the ground and being handcuffed, Lewis shot him twice in the back at close range. There were no witnesses to the shooting. Lewis claimed the teen went for his gun as he lay on the ground with one hand cuffed.

Howard reopened the case in May after the news organizations’ investigation cast doubt on the official justification for Lewis pulling the trigger. At least half of the roughly dozen witnesses — some first identified by the AJC/Channel 2 — did not testify before a May 2012 grand jury that cleared Lewis.

Howard said in May he was surprised by some of the investigation's findings and expressed concern that some of the information and witnesses in the district attorney's own case files may not have been presented to grand jurors. He told Waiters' mother that he would hold someone accountable in his death.

In his written statement Thursday, Howard said that he had decided to present the case a second time because of the newly discovered statements from fellow officers and the revelation of an additional police/citizen confrontation by Lewis.

Two of the witnesses who testified on Thursday were Officers Chris McElroy and Windell Adams, supervising officers on the scene just minutes after Lewis shot Waiters.

McElroy broke a three-year silence about the case when he told the AJC/Channel 2 in May that he had been troubled by the shooting since the night it happened. McElroy, a supervising lieutenant the night of the shooting, told reporters that Lewis told a different story to him just after the shooting about why he pulled the trigger.

He said Lewis didn’t mention anything about a struggle for his gun. Instead, McElroy said, Lewis told him he shot Waiters when he was on the ground and refused to show his hands.

McElroy said Union City Chief Chuck Odom directed him not to write a statement about what he witnessed at the scene. McElroy 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.

McElroy, who has been demoted since the shooting to patrol officer, told reporters in May about a troubling incident involving Lewis drawing his weapon during a traffic stop a couple months before the Waiters shooting. McElroy was alarmed afterward when Lewis, who is white, told him he was going to shoot the young black man because he wouldn’t remove his hands from his pockets.

“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.”

DA Howard’s office also called a national DNA expert, Greg Hampikian, who appeared in the AJC/Channel 2 report refuting earlier suggestions that Waiters' DNA was on the gun. Hampikian said in May the DNA samples on the gun didn’t prove anything about whether Waiters touched the gun or not.

“Mr. Waiters is among perhaps hundreds of thousands of Georgians who cannot be excluded as possible minor contributors of DNA to the gun,” said Hampikian, a professor at Boise State University.

Several Union City officers had expressed concern that Lewis, a recent Afghanistan war veteran, may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One of the officers who heard some of those concerns, Capt. Mike Jones, was one of the witnesses who testified Thursday.

Several observers said that Lewis was emotional and even cried during some of the testimony on Thursday.

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.

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 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 spoke for more than 90 minutes after other testimony was completed on Thursday evening.

He also 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 investigation into the Union City case is part of a broad examination of police shootings in Georgia. Go to this link to read other stories in the series.