State and local investigators have reopened a criminal investigation into the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager following reports from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News that found inconsistencies in the official story justifying the teen’s death.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s office, working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, has been in contact with at least half a dozen current and former Union City police officers to interview or re-interview them in response to the AJC/Channel 2 investigative story.
“The case has been reopened at the request of the district attorney,” said GBI spokeswoman Sherry Lang. “We have conducted additional interviews with officers who claim to have information about the incident. We are doing that in conjunction with the district attorney’s office.”
Investigators with Howard’s office interviewed one of the officers, Chris McElroy, on Friday, just two days after Howard learned of the AJC/Channel 2 findings.
“They said they are reviewing the case,” said McElroy, who said several other officers in the small department south of Atlanta have also been contacted.
McElroy was the first supervisor on the scene after Union City Police officer Luther Lewis shot Ariston Waiters twice in the back while handcuffing the teen on the ground Dec. 14, 2011. McElroy told the AJC and Channel 2 that Lewis said he shot Waiters because the teen would not show his hands, and he feared he might be concealing a gun.
Later, Lewis told a different version of what happened, claiming that the teen grabbed his gun during a struggle and that he feared for his life.
McElroy described to Fulton investigators what Lewis said to him the night of the shooting more than three years ago in preparation for a criminal case against the white officer. In that interview, McElroy said Lewis never mentioned a struggle for his gun. McElroy, however, was not called to testify before the grand jury, which voted not to indict Lewis for murder and seven other charges in May 2012.
Waiters’ family subsequently settled a wrongful death lawsuit against Union City for $750,000 in the name of Waiters’ daughter, who was 5-months-old at the time of her father’s death. Waiters’ mother, however, has continued to press her son’s case, claiming the shooting was unjustified. She plans to address a meeting of the Union City Council Tuesday night.
McElroy reluctantly agreed to be interviewed by reporters about the case this month, saying the circumstances surrounding Waiters’ death had troubled him from the very beginning.
He told the AJC and Channel 2 that Lewis was involved in another scuffle where he drew his weapon and almost shot an unarmed black teen in the back months before he shot Waiters. He said Union City Police Chief Chuck Odom also recently made an off-the-cuff statement about the Lewis case to him and another officer. Odom said Lewis should have been sent to prison but he “took care of it,” according to McElroy.
Lewis declined interview requests from the AJC and Channel 2. Contacted by phone on Monday, he said the case was reviewed thoroughly three years ago by multiple agencies. He resigned from the Union City Police Department last year, but said he would cooperate with investigators if they contacted him.
“It they call me to re-interview me then I’ll go to be re-interviewed,” Lewis said. “I’m just trying to stay grounded in my faith.”
Howard told the AJC and Channel 2 last week that he had never heard McElroy’s version of the shooting, even though the officer’s interview was contained in the DA’s case files. He also said he was unaware of concerns that some officers had about Lewis’ fitness for duty, including details of an earlier incident when Union City Police could not substantiate a claim that Lewis had been fired upon while responding to a reported carjacking. Details of that incident were also in the DA’s case file and reviewed by the AJC and Channel 2.
“If that was in the file and I didn’t know about it, I would have expected somebody would have brought that to my attention,” Howard said. “If we are going to make the decision to seek an indictment of this importance I want to know what all the facts are. If it was there and somebody didn’t bring it to my attention, I deem that as a mistake.”
The AJC/Channel 2 investigation also uncovered incidents in Lewis’ past that Howard said were not in his personnel file, obtained from the Union City Police Department. An officer wrote Lewis up for insubordination just weeks before the Waiters shooting, but that record wasn’t in his personnel file.
“The impression that I’m receiving from what you are reporting is that in many instances, we were misled,” Howard said last week. “We received an official file from the police department and the incidents you are referring to, they were not in that file.”
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