Arthur Tesler doesn't face the most serious charges in the illegal police raid that resulted in the killing of a 92-year-old woman, but his trial could be the only time the high-profile case gets laid bare in the courtroom.
Tesler is the only Atlanta police officer to go to trial for his role in the 2006 raid that left Kathryn Johnston dead. Officers later admitted planting drugs to justify breaking into her home.
Opening statements in Tesler's trial are scheduled for today before Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson at the Fulton County Courthouse.
The scandal spawned accusations of questionable police practices such as arrest quotas, no-knock search warrants in which cops break down doors in surprise attacks and --- at least in this case --- lying about evidence to get warrants.
It prompted police Chief Richard Pennington to disband and reorganize the department's narcotics unit and two other officers to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
"It has set our department back a couple of years in terms of our trust with the neighborhoods and in our ability to fight drug trafficking," said Sgt. Scott Kreher, president of International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 623. "It tarnished our badge."
Tesler faces charges of false imprisonment, violation of oath of office and making a false statement to an investigator. Prosecutors say his role was to keep Johnston trapped in her house on Neal Street in northwest Atlanta and that he helped in an attempted cover-up.
If convicted, he could face 15 years in prison.
Attempts to reach Tesler's lawyer, Bill McKenney, were unsuccessful. He has contended his client did nothing wrong and has questioned the legitimacy of the false imprisonment charge.
Former Officers Gregg Junnier and Jason R. Smith pleaded guilty to manslaughter and a federal charge of violating Johnston's constitutional rights. They face up to 10 years and 12 years respectively, depending on their cooperation with authorities.
Both are expected to testify against Tesler, who is on leave pending trial.
"It is an ugly case, but Tesler is not a patsy . . . nobody forced him to be derelict in his duty," said Rand Csehy, a former narcotics prosecutor who represented Junnier, an 18-year veteran. "The death was the tragic consequence of an intentional act. I don't believe in diminishing liability based on who got there first and who got their last.
"Kathryn Johnston depended on the Police Department to protect her."
State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) said the Johnston killing has hurt perceptions of police in poorer neighborhoods more than any event in decades.
"The police are supposed to be our first line of defense against bad guys, but now there are people who are wondering if they are safe in their homes," Fort said. "There is still a great deal of anger of what happened to Mrs. Johnston."
Fort said many people believe the sentences for Junnier and Smith are too light and fear Tesler will be acquitted or get little prison time.
Neighborhood meetings following Johnston's death brought forth allegations of a series of police abuses, including no-knock warrants issued for the wrong homes.
"People are concerned that there is a double standard of justice, one for criminals who happened to be police and another standard for other people," Fort said.
The imprisonment charge against Tesler is based on his role covering Johnston's backyard when Junnier and Smith broke down the front door with other members of an eight-man narcotics team on Nov. 21, 2006.
The team didn't announce themselves as police, and Johnston, apparently fearing a home invasion, fired one round from an old revolver. The police fired 39 shots, killing the woman, then handcuffed her as she lay bleeding and planted drugs in her basement, investigators said.
In an affidavit to get a search warrant, Smith told a magistrate he and Tesler had a confidential informant buy $50 worth of crack at 933 Neal St. from a man named "Sam." Police got the no-knock warrant by claiming Sam had surveillance cameras and they needed the element of surprise. Junnier later told federal investigators no drug buy took place.
The raid was set in motion by the arrest of a suspected small-time dealer earlier that day who claimed he saw a kilogram of cocaine at the Neal Street home.
The narcotics unit reportedly tried to have an informant buy drugs at the house but, when that couldn't be arranged, got the no-knock warrant.
The intended informant, Alex White, later came forward and told authorities the drug officers had asked him to say he'd bought drugs at the house. White's role became public after he jumped out of an Atlanta squad car and called 911. On a 911 tape, an insistent and anxious-sounding man identifying himself as White told an operator, "I have two cops chasing me. They're on the dirty side, two undercover officers."
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