A year later, few answers for family of DeKalb man killed by police

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

DA hasn’t decided whether to charge officers

For the family of Matthew Zadok Williams, the past 12 months have been absolutely grueling.

The 35-year-old was shot and killed by DeKalb County police at his condominium last year during what his mother and sisters say was a mental health crisis. Hahnah Williams and her family have organized weekly rallies, collected signatures and called on the DeKalb County district attorney to bring charges against the officers involved. They also delivered a petition signed by nearly 40,000 people to the office of DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond earlier this year, urging him to take action.

“They kicked the door open and they shot him and they left him to die,” said Hahnah Williams, an Atlanta attorney who contends DeKalb officers violated several department policies when they fatally shot her brother inside his home.

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

On Monday, the eve of the one-year anniversary of the shooting, Williams’ family organized a rally and candlelight vigil at Atlanta’s Freedom Park. They also planned to deliver a second petition to DeKalb DA Sherry Boston, hopeful she will make a charging decision against the officers involved.

The GBI finished its investigation last summer and turned the findings over to the district attorney’s office on July 14. A spokeswoman for the DA said the case is still being looked at.

“At this juncture, the matter remains open and under investigation,” Lisa Myers said in a statement. “A charging determination has not yet been made.”

Police were called to Williams’ southwest DeKalb complex the afternoon of April 12, 2021, after a neighbor dialed 911 to report what she said was a suspicious man “lurking around the woods” near her home.

“I don’t know if he’s armed or not ... I think he’s homeless,” the woman told the dispatcher.She later called back saying the man approached her with a knife as she walked to her car, and asked them to send someone quickly.

When police arrived they encountered Williams outside his unit.

Video from the officers’ body-worn cameras showed one of them ask Williams if he lived at the condo, which police initially believed was vacant. The knife wasn’t visible at first.

“If you don’t live here, man, I’m kindly asking you to leave the property, all right?” an officer said.

That’s when Williams appeared to pull out the knife and move toward the police.

Credit: DeKalb County Police Department

Credit: DeKalb County Police Department

A second officer fired a single shot but apparently missed Williams, who got up and ran. He managed to scurry onto his roof, kick through a glass window and dive into his bedroom before police surrounded his home, one witness said.

Body camera video released by the department showed him crouching behind an ottoman as police stood outside his front door, guns drawn.

The video appeared to show an officer kick open the door a second time and fire a single shot into the home. Each time the door was opened, Williams would quickly shut it from inside. His family says he was probably terrified.

After several attempts to get Williams to come out, one officer implored him to bring the standoff to an end.

“Let me see you throw (the knife) down. You throw it down, we’ll put our stuff down,” Sgt. Devon Perry told him. “Please, sir. I’m begging you. You’re a Black man. I’m a Black man. You don’t have to die today.”

It was Perry who fired a second time, according to the family and their attorney, shooting three rounds into the living room and striking Williams in the shoulder and hand. Hahnah Williams said her brother would likely still be alive had police gone in and rendered aid. Instead, they waited for the SWAT team.

It would be 90 minutes before authorities went into Williams’ condo and found him dead.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

“Why did he have to die?” Hahnah Williams asked. “Why was death the only option?”

More than three dozen supporters rallied Monday evening, many carrying signs that read “Justice for Zadok.”

Speaking through a bullhorn as a jazz quartet played softly nearby, Williams’ mother, Chris Ann Lewis, vowed to keep fighting.

“I don’t understand why it’s taken them so long.” she said. “What good are body cameras without accountability?”

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Once Williams was inside his home, the officers had plenty of options, his family contends. They could have called in a mental health professional or gotten a relative on the phone. Instead, Williams was shot and killed.

Body camera footage obtained by the family appears to show Perry acknowledge that Williams was mentally unstable during a conversation with police Chief Mirtha Ramos at the scene.

“He is definitely mentally ill,” the officer is heard telling his boss after the shooting.

The DeKalb County Police Department said last year it planned to conduct its own review of the shooting. A county spokesman, citing the DA’s ongoing investigation, said the results of that internal probe are “not yet subject to disclosure.”

Hahnah Williams said her brother no longer posed a threat to officers once he went back inside.

“You shouldn’t shoot a man because they’re not doing what you say fast enough, especially when you know he’s mentally ill,” she said.

She referred to an incident in neighboring Gwinnett County last month where a man allegedly pulled out a gun on a Greyhound bus full of passengers during a mental health crisis. In that case, negotiators spoke at length with the 23-year-old and persuaded him to surrender.

Williams’ mother and sisters said Zadok was a self-taught investor and stock trader, proud of the condo he bought with his savings in 2009. He was nerdy and quirky and would have done anything for them.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

The youngest of six children and the only boy, he helped his older sisters by watching their children as they worked through law and medical school. When one sister was diagnosed with cancer, he let her live in one of his homes for free so she could focus on getting better.

“He was a good man,” his mother said. “He shouldn’t have died the way he did.”

Though they hope the officers involved are charged, Hahnah Williams said she isn’t sure her family can ever truly get justice.

“Our family will never be the same,” she said, choking back tears. “I miss his voice, I miss his laugh. I miss how positive he was, how kind and loving. ... I just miss him.”

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com