Will PTSD diagnosis help former Atlanta officer avoid prison?

Matthew Johns

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Matthew Johns

Could past trauma — perhaps something witnessed during two combat tours in Iraq — have led former Atlanta police officer Matthew Johns to assault an unarmed, compliant 15-year-old suspect in September 2016?

And if so, could that connection be enough to preserve Johns’ freedom?

It’s a legal Hail Mary for sure, and so far all it has bought is time. But Johns will take it.

Prosecutors on Monday were set to recommend a five-year prison sentence for Johns, with two to serve, after the 33-year-old Marine veteran pleaded guilty this month to three counts of aggravated assault, one count of aggravated assault/strangulation, and two counts each of making a false statement and violating his oath of office. He faced up to 40 years in prison if found guilty in a trial.

Instead, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Constance C. Russell granted Johns a 30-day reprieve after the defense revealed he was recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He does have these issues and they could have contributed to the incident that occurred,” said Johns’ attorney, Raemona Dene’ll Byrd-Jones.


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But the defense faces a mighty lift. It will have to establish that Johns’ mental health mitigates the severity of his acknowledged crimes, thus necessitating a lighter sentence.

Prosecutors, while not objecting to the delay, made it clear they don’t see any correlation between Johns’ PTSD and the 2016 incident in which he admitted to repeatedly kicking and choking Antraveious Payne after the teen emerged from the back seat of a stolen BMW.

“The state absolutely does not believe the two are related,” said prosecutor Adam Abate. The judge agreed to let the prosecution have its own psychologist interview Johns before the Aug. 26 sentencing hearing. Russell told Byrd-Jones there will be no more extensions.

According to prosecutors, Johns assaulted Payne even after the suspect lay on the ground with his hands up, showing he did not have a weapon and was willing to surrender.

Johns’ aggressive overreaction is what you might expect from someone with PTSD, said forensic psychiatrist Shawn Agharkar. But that behavior is typically triggered by a threat, “and this doesn’t sounds like much of a threat,” said Agharkar, who’s a faculty member at the Emory University School of Medicine and the Morehouse School of Medicine.

“I’m skeptical, but it’s hard to know without knowing all the details of his experiences,” Agharkar told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Johns told investigators he thought Payne was reaching for a gun, but the other officers on scene said none of the three suspects resisted arrest. APD Chief Erika Shields fired him the following July and, according to Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard, Johns’ fellow officers were prepared to testify against him after viewing body cam footage of the incident.

Court records revealed that Johns ran toward Payne, kicked Payne three times in the head while the teen was lying on the ground, then pressed his knee to the teen’s neck.

Payne suffered a number of cuts and bruises, a neck strain and a serious concussion during the arrest, according to court records. Now 17, Payne is incarcerated in Cobb County on aggravated assault charges in an unrelated case.