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May 21, 2008 -- Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)

Officer In Fatal '06 Raid Guilty Of One Charge

By Steve Visser, Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Arthur Bruce Tesler's acquittal on two of three charges Tuesday may have spared him a long prison term for his role in the killing of a 92-year-old woman -- but a spectator at his trial said the Almighty would have the last word.

"I put it all in God's hands," said Esther Woltz as she waited on the Fulton County jury's verdict for the Atlanta police detective.

The jury acquitted Tesler on two charges from the illegal 2006 narcotics raid in which officers shot and killed Kathryn Johnston in her northwest Atlanta home. It found him guilty of lying in an official investigation in the cover-up of police wrongdoing that followed the shooting.

"It is not like anyone intended to hurt her, but that's what came out of it," Woltz said. "Right will win out."

Tesler, 42, faces up to five years in prison when sentenced Thursday. If he had been convicted on all counts, he could have been sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The verdict came shortly after the jury reviewed a transcript of Tesler's defense testimony. He and his two partners were accused of lying to get the no-knock search warrant for Johnston's home on the mistaken belief it was the house of a drug dealer.

The Johnston killing shocked metro Atlanta and enraged many in the African-American community, who complained that shoddy or heavy-handed police work in the war on drugs was a source of repeated abuses.

After the verdict, state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) struggled to contain his anger. He contended Tesler -- who was not charged with homicide -- was as responsible for Johnston's death as his two partners, who both pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.

"He has much blood on his hands, and he is now in custody where he ought to be," Fort said. "No matter how much time he spends in jail, he will have to live with himself."

Tesler's family declined to comment after the verdict.

Jury foreman Steve Burrows said jurors had worked diligently to reach verdicts on all three counts since Thursday, when they received the case.

"We were a panel of people who worked very hard to come to consensus," he said.

Tesler was charged with violating his oath of office, lying in an official investigation and falsely imprisoning Johnston, who was shot in her home after she fired a revolver at plainclothes officers as they burst into the house on Nov. 21, 2006.

His two partners, Gregg Junnier and Jason R. Smith, who were charged with murder in the case, pleaded guilty earlier to voluntary manslaughter and to federal civil rights violations. Unlike Smith and Junnier, Tesler was stationed at the rear of the house. Tesler testified that he fired no shots. Junnier and Smith, who entered plea bargains, face up to 10 and 12 years, respectively, on the state charges and on federal civil rights violations.

Tesler testified he did not know that Smith lied to a judge to get a no-knock search warrant for the house on Neal Street. The detectives said they had been told a kilo of cocaine was hidden in the house.

Instead, Smith planted drugs in the house after the officers killed Johnston, according to testimony.

Tesler, a new officer in the narcotics division, testified he participated in the cover-up of the illegal warrant because he feared for his safety from his partners and he feared being labeled a "rat" if he informed on them.

Tesler's lawyer, William McKenney, acknowledged the jury would have had trouble acquitting his client of charges he lied in an official investigation because Tesler had told the FBI an elaborate cover story in a taped interview.

"We admitted he did not tell the truth to the FBI," McKenney said. "The issue was whether they felt he was coerced into making a false statement."

The Rev. Markel Hutchins, who pushed for a federal investigation of the killing, said even the partial victory was distinctive because the jurors had decided to hold a police officer accountable.

"Police officers are typically not convicted by juries even when they kill innocent people," Hutchins said. "So we think this is some measure of justice."

District Attorney Paul Howard said the verdict showed the community wouldn't overlook police wrongdoing and expected police officers to follow the law when enforcing it.

"One of the things we hope that people in the community realize is that it doesn't make a difference if you commit a crime in Fulton County -- whether you are a police officer or a citizen -- you will be held accountable," Howard said.

Some Neal Street residents near Johnston's house expressed outrage at the verdict.

"There's a lot of people down here who have lost their respect for the police," said Marie Thomas, 36. "This verdict is a slap in the face. If they're going to get away with it this time, they'll do it again."

Police Chief Richard Pennington responded to the verdict at news conference announcing results of the new narcotics unit's first major operation since it was disbanded and rebuilt after the Johnston shooting.

"I think the jury has spoken," Pennington said. "He [Tesler] has been given an opportunity to go before his peers, in terms of a trial by jury."

Pennington said police had prepared for any outbreak of "civil unrest" that might erupt because of anger at the verdict. There appeared to be a heavy police presence in the Neal Street neighborhood Tuesday evening.

Pennington's absence at the trial was noted by spectators. "I'm surprised Pennington isn't here," Woltz said.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin was at a conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

Hutchins, a spokesman for Johnston's family, said Atlanta has a better Police Department because of the case. He contended no-knock warrants aren't being issued so easily and that supervisors are being scrutinized to ensure they followed policies.

He said the superiors of the three officers also should have been held accountable. He noted testimony in the trial from Junnier, Tesler's partner, that the head of the narcotics division adopted a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to supervision and the sergeant over the unit told the three men to adopt a story and stick to it after the botched raid.

"We will continue to push for criminal prosecution for those who turn their heads," he said. "We certainly hope that this is not over."

Lou Arcangeli, a former APD deputy chief, blamed the department for allowing lax or conniving supervisors for creating a culture where officers felt free to circumvent the law.

He said Johnston's death could have been avoided if the department had demanded that officers followed strict procedures in making arrests rather than reaching monthly arrest quotas. "Tesler has my sympathy, but he made some bad choices," said Arcangeli, who watched the verdict. "If he had a tough sergeant, would any of this have happened?"

Sgt. Scott Kreher, a police union leader, said the department has been waiting for the criminal case to be over to launch its internal investigation of supervisor culpability.

"Of course the administrative charges haven't been brought yet," Kreher said. "It will be interesting to see where those charges go."

Staff writers Eric Stirgus, Christian Boone, Tim Eberly and Ken Sugiura contributed to this article.

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