A Smyrna police officer was justified in the fatal shooting of a 23-year-old tire store employee, a Cobb County grand jury ruled Thursday, because he fired not to protect himself but a fellow officer, according to Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds.
Nicholas Thomas was shot in the back as he fled, in a customer’s Maserati, Smyrna and Cobb police officers attempting to serve him on March 24th with a warrant for a probation violation. The wound from the back detail, revealed last month by the Cobb Medical Examiner’s Office, led Mawuli Davis, the attorney for Thomas’ parents, to question why, if the officer feared for his life, he didn’t fire his weapon until the Maserati was passing him.
But the grand jury, Cobb police, GBI investigators recommended no action be taken against the veteran officer who, according to his lawyer, had never discharged his weapon in the line of duty prior to Thomas’ shooting.
Reynolds said surveillance footage from the Cumberland Parkway Goodyear, where Thomas worked, confirmed Owens’ account.
“He sees a second officer and a canine running to his right, unable to see Thomas approaching” in the Maserati, Reynolds said. Fearing for their safety, he fired multiple bullets at the suspect, he said.
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The officers — three from Smyrna, two from Cobb — were aware Thomas had a history of fleeing police, the D.A. told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday. Thomas was arrested in 2013 after trying to elude Kennesaw State University Police pursuing him for speeding. At one point during that chase, captured on dash cam video, he is seen driving his Nissan 350Z toward one of the patrol cars, narrowly missing it.
Thomas’ parents and their supporters argued fleeing police, while wrong, doesn’t warrant a death sentence. Family members and Davis declined comment until a Friday morning press conference.
Last month, Thomas’ mother, following a meeting with the GBI, told reporters she doubted Owens would face criminal charges.
“We get no justice,” Felicia Thomas said following a meeting with the GBI, which has completed its investigation of the March 24 shooting of Nicholas Thomas. “The police are investigating the police.”
The grand jury process, dominated and controlled by prosecutors, is fundamentally unfair to the victims of police shootings, said Buford criminal attorney Walt Britt.
“Unfairness breeds doubt,” he said, citing a “natural bias” towards the police. “(Prosecutors) use grand juries as either their excuse (not to file charges) or their tool.”
A recent analysis by The Washington Post found that, since 2005, only 54 officers have been charged for fatally shooting someone while on duty, “a small fraction of the thousands of fatal police shootings that have occurred across the country in that time,” the paper reported.
Reynolds said, besides the investigating agencies, he had prosecutors with his major crimes unit and his chief deputy review the case file. Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Jesse Evans said it was “overwhelmingly clear” the officer was justified in his action.
“I don’t know what more we could’ve done,” Reynolds said.
Thomas was one of two unarmed, young African-American men to die in March following confrontations with metro Atlanta police officers. Anthony Hill, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was shot and killed March 9 by a DeKalb County officer who alleged the Afghanistan war veteran charged him in a threatening manner.
DeKalb police were involved in another controversial shooting two months earlier. Kevin Davis, 39, was shot in his apartment after calling 911 requesting help for his injured girlfriend. The DeKalb cases are expected to go before a civil grand jury by the first week in September, after which District Attorney Robert James will decide whether to bring charges.
Initially, Cobb police were in charge of investigating Thomas’ shooting. But Thomas’ parents successfully lobbied for the GBI to take over. The agency handed turned over its findings last month.
Owens, who had been reassigned to an administrative post while his shooting was investigated, is anxious to return to his former duties, said his lawyer, Lance LoRusso.
“He wants to get back to serving citizens as he did before,” LoRusso said. “It’s been a tough three months for him. He’s heard a lot of things said about him that were untrue.”
In a statement, Smyrna police said they were “satisfied this incident was thoroughly scrutinized, investigated, and evaluated.”
Though convinced he did nothing wrong, Owens empathizes with Thomas’ parents, his lawyer said.
“Sgt. Owens is a father, too,” LoRusso said. “He knows what the family is going through.”