CNN reports that the officers who shot Kathryn Johnston have pleaded guilty — to manslaughter:
A police officer and a former officer pleaded guilty Thursday to manslaughter in the shooting death of a 92-year-old woman during a botched drug raid last fall. Another officer still faces charges in the woman’s death.
Officer J.R. Smith told the judge Thursday that he regretted what had happened.
“I’m sorry,” the 35-year-old said, his voice barely audible. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter, violation of oath, criminal solicitation, making false statements and perjury, which was based on untrue claims in a warrant.
Former Officer 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. Both men are expected to face more than 10 years in prison.
It’s not enough. We now know, based on the plea, that these officers lied to get into that house. This was a felony murder. These men should never again see the light of day.
When this case was first reported, I urged people not to jump to conclusions, and I continue to believe that was the right call. However, in the comment section to my posts, I made some comments to the effect that, based on the information then available (service of a valid search warrant at an address where suspected narcotics were recovered), Ms. Johnston was at fault for shooting at the police. Since that information has proven to be incorrect, those comments were wrong. Making matters worse, I didn’t qualify my statements every time I made them, so that, for example, I said: “If she fired first and shot 3 cops, then shooting her was eminently justified.” Well, not if they busted into her house based on a phony search warrant! — something we now know to be the case.
If you read the entirety of the thread, it’s clear that my main point was that people should not leap to the conclusion that the warrant was served at the wrong location. I still think that was a valid point to make. But my sloppier comments — especially the unqualified ones like the one I just quoted — are an illustration of the dangers of commenting off the cuff. Now that we know Ms. Johnston did nothing wrong [UPDATE: or, at least, there is good reason to believe she didn’t — see UPDATE below], I regret any suggestion I made to the contrary, and I apologize to her memory and to her family — not that they will likely ever see my apology.
I don’t promise to refrain from approaching issues in a cautious manner, and I don’t promise to leap to conclusions in the future. That would be the wrong lesson to learn from this incident. But I will do my best to avoid making sloppy comments. This incident has taught me that people sometimes pay as much attention to those as they pay to my more carefully crafted posts.
UPDATE: Several commenters are arguing that the validity of the warrant is a wholly separate issue from whether the shooting is justified. I disagree. They are not the same issue, but the issues are intertwined to a large degree.
When looking at the actions of the police, the fact that the warrant was based on lies (and the cops serving it knew that) is critical. If the police were committing a felony when they served the warrant on Ms. Johnston’s home — because they were breaking into a home based upon what they knew to be a trumped-up justification — then they can’t escape the consequences for causing Ms. Johnston’s death by arguing self defense. They set the tragedy in motion by committing the felony to begin with. If I legally walk into a store and the owner pulls a gun on me, I may shoot and kill him. If I rob a store and the owner pulls a gun on me, it’s a different situation entirely. If I shoot and kill him, it’s murder.
When looking at the actions of Ms. Johnston, the fact that the warrant was based on lies is less relevant, but still meaningful. I don’t agree with the argument that an innocent homeowner has the right to shoot at police if they properly identify themselves as serving a search warrant. The innocent homeowner doesn’t know whether the warrant is trumped-up or just a mistake, and to authorize the homeowner to shoot under those circumstances invites anarchy.
However, the fact that Ms. Johnston was innocent, and actually being victimized by dirty cops, has relevance to assessing her actions. First, it makes it much more likely that the police didn’t properly identify themselves, and that she actually thought she was protecting herself against criminals. The police might claim otherwise — but now that I know they lied to get the search warrant, I’m not inclined to believe anything they say. So while we don’t know that Ms. Johnston did nothing wrong, it now seems a much more likely scenario.