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2 plead guilty in Atlanta police shooting death

Two police officers pleaded guilty to manslaughter Thursday in the shooting death of a 92-year-old woman during a botched drug raid. A third officer was also indicted in the woman’s death.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two police officers pleaded guilty to manslaughter Thursday in the shooting death of a 92-year-old woman during a botched drug raid. A third officer was also indicted in the woman’s death.

Gregg Junnier, 40, who retired from the Atlanta police force in January, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, violation of oath, criminal solicitation and making false statements.

Officer J.R. Smith, 35, pleaded guilty to the same four charges and to perjury, which was based on making untrue claims in a warrant.

In court, Smith said he regretted what happened.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice barely audible.

The state charges followed a Nov. 21 drug raid on the apartment of Kathryn Johnston, 92. An informant had described buying drugs from a dealer there, police said. When the officers burst in without warning, Johnston fired at them, and they fired back, killing her.

Junnier and Smith had been charged in an indictment unsealed earlier Thursday with felony murder, violation of oath by a public officer, criminal solicitation, burglary, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and making false statements.

The third officer, Arthur Tesler, 40, was charged with violation of oath by a public officer, making false statements and false imprisonment under color of legal process. His attorney, William McKenney, said Tesler expects to go to trial.

Tesler is “very relieved” not to face murder charges, McKenney said, “but we’re concerned about the three charges.” He said Tesler had testified before the grand jury.

Tesler and Smith have both been on administrative leave from the force.

Federal charges expected
In Junnier’s case, prosecutors asked the judge to withhold sentencing until after a hearing later Thursday in federal court, where he was also expected to enter guilty pleas. Federal charges were expected against all three officers.

U.S. Attorney David Nahmias told The Associated Press the federal sentence for Junnier would be 10 years and one month in prison. The state and federal sentences were expected to be the same.

The deadly drug raid had been set up after narcotics officers said an informant had claimed there was cocaine in the home.

When the plainclothes officers burst in without notice, police say Johnston fired a handgun at the men, wounding three, and the officers returned fire. An autopsy report revealed Johnston was shot five or six times in the chest, arms, legs and feet. Initially, the medical examiner’s office said Johnston was 88, while her relatives insisted she was 92. Public officials now agree she was 92.

Questions about no-knock raids
The case raised serious questions about no-knock warrants and whether the officers followed proper procedures.

Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington asked the FBI to lead a multi-agency probe into the shootout. He also announced policy changes to require the department to drug-test its nearly 1,800 officers and mandate that top supervisors sign off on narcotics operations and no-knock warrants.

To get the warrant, officers told a magistrate judge that an undercover informant had told them Johnston’s home had surveillance cameras monitored carefully by a drug dealer named “Sam.”

After the shooting, a man claiming to be the informant told a television station that he never purchased drugs there, prompting Pennington to admit he was uncertain whether the suspected drug dealer actually existed.

The Rev. Markel Hutchins, a civil rights activist who serves as a spokesman for Johnston’s family, said the family was satisfied with Thursday’s developments. “They have never sought vengeance. They have only sought justice,” he said.

Hutchins said the family is considering civil action against the police department. “I think what happened today makes it very clear that Ms. Johnston was violated, that her civil rights were violated,” he said.