Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard pledged Wednesday to “hold someone accountable” in the 2011 shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white Union City Police officer and resubmit the three-year-old case to a criminal grand jury.
“What we plan to do is present the evidence that would show what happened that day,” Howard said. “We want to present the best case that we can.”
Howard made his remarks about the case of Ariston Waiters after meeting privately with Freda Waiters, the teen’s mother. Howard reopened the case two weeks ago after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News reported new details that cast doubt on the official version of how Waiters died.
Waiters was shot twice in the back at close range while lying on the ground and being handcuffed by a Union City police officer on Dec. 14, 2011. There were no witnesses to the shooting. Officer Luther Lewis claimed Waiters went for his gun and in May 2012 a Fulton County grand jury declined to indict the officer for murder and seven other felonies.
The first supervisor to arrive on the scene, however, told the AJC and Channel 2 that Lewis did not mention a struggle for his gun. Instead, Lewis told then-Lt. Chris McElroy that Waiters would not show his hands and Lewis feared he had a gun. Waiters was concealing a pill bottle, McElroy said.
McElroy was interviewed by investigators with Howard’s office in 2012 and told the same story to them. But Howard’s office did not call McElroy before the grand jury.
It’s unclear if grand jurors heard other information uncovered in the AJC’s and Channel 2’s reporting, including several instances when officers said Lewis had behaved erratically on patrol and their concerns that Lewis might be suffering some form of post-traumatic stress disorder from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McElroy recounted one instance months before Lewis shot Waiters when the officer pulled a gun on another young black male and told McElroy that he was planning to shoot the young man because he refused to show his hands.
In the Waiters case presented to the grand jury in 2012, a consultant hired by Howard’s office to examine the evidence wrote a report that found gross inconsistencies in Lewis’ account of the shooting. The consultant also said Lewis’ account of a struggle for his gun were not easily supported by the forensic evidence.
On Wednesday, Howard declined to give a timetable for when he planned take the Waiters case to a new grand jury, other than to say he planned to do so “in a short amount of time.”
“We are moving forward with the investigation,” Howard said. “We are on it.”
Freda Waiters, who was critical of Howard’s handling of the case after the first grand jury did not indict Lewis in 2012, declined to characterize her meeting with the district attorney.
Her attorney, Mawuli Davis, called their exchange a “private but significant discussion” about the case. “The meeting went well,” Davis said. “We have expectations that charges will be brought against Luther Lewis.”
Lewis left the Union City Police Department voluntarily last year. Waiters’ family settled a wrongful death suit against the city on behalf of Waiters’ young daughter for $750,000 after the first criminal case was closed.
Supporters of Waiters’ family, including state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, also urged Howard to investigate the Union City Police Department and its chief, Chuck Odom, whom they accused of covering up the shooting.
McElroy told the AJC and Channel 2 that he overheard Odom say that he had “kept Luther Lewis out of prison” in an off-the-cuff remark late last year, while referencing another officer-involved shooting in Union City.
“We want charges,” Fort. “We want charges against Luther Lewis. And we want charges against everyone who contributed to this cover up.”
In his remarks after his meeting with Freda Waiters, Howard told the family’s supporters, including several ministers, to urge the citizens of Union City to come forward with information about the police department.
“We’ve gotten rumors of certain incidents,” Howard said. “But what we need is for the people involved in those incidents to come forward.”