Dekalb County Jail. AJC file photo. (Renee’ Hannans/Staff)

DeKalb commissioners approve payout after police shooting, jail death

The families of two men whose deaths were blamed in part on shortcomings with DeKalb County law enforcement will receive six-figure settlements to end years of litigation, according to court documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The DeKalb Board of Commissioners agreed to pay $475,000 to the wife and children of Dirk Smith, who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county, then Police Chief William O’Brien and the officers who shot and killed Smith in 2010.

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The commission also agreed to pay out $187,500 to the estate of Godfrey Cook, who was killed inside the DeKalb County jail in 2009. Saleevan Adan was already facing a murder charge when he attacked Cook.

County officials said no one was available Thursday to confirm the settlements had been finalized and both cases closed.

Smith was killed in his Lithonia home after he barricaded himself in a bathroom and refused to follow orders to drop a kitchen knife. Before being shot by police, he was also tased twice.

The incident occurred after Smith arrived home early from vacation in Las Vegas after arguing with his wife, Estelle. The house-sitter refused to let him inside, so Smith broke a glass door and then used a knife to open locked bedroom doors. Estelle Smith told the house-sitter to call police and later told officers she wanted her husband to get help because he was under emotional stress.

Smith was shot after charging out of a bathroom closet where he had been hiding. Officers testified that he had the knife raised and was slashing it around, but his son who was present for the ordeal and photo evidence cast doubt on their explanation.

The district attorney cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing, but Estelle Smith filed suit in federal court in 2012 accusing police of entering the home without a warrant, using excessive force on her husband and improperly firing their guns to kill him.

A federal appeals court ruled in 2016 that police were justified in entering the home but that the different versions of what preceded the shooting warranted a jury trial. Instead, both sides decided to go into mediation that resulted in the settlement DeKalb commissioners approved on June 28.

Adan has been transferred from a state mental health hospital to the jail after being deemed competent to stand trial, but judge then reversed that decision. Delays in paperwork kept Adan at the jail long enough for a lethal interaction with Cook inside a jail cell.

After Cook’s death, Adan was sent to Central State Hospital where he killed again.

Cook’s estate sued the county, Sheriff Thomas Brown and several correctional officers, saying neglectful behavior and failure to follow policy contributed to his death. Courts eventually ruled that the sheriff had done nothing wrong, although other parts of the case were allowed to proceed.

A Fulton County State Court judge wrote that evidence against two correctional officers indicated they failed to take precautions that could have prevented Cook’s death and therefore could qualify for punitive damages. The case was ordered to jury trial, which was scheduled for this week.

The Board of Commissioners said both lawsuits will be dismissed as a result of these settlements, and the plaintiffs agreed not to pursue additional action against the county.

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