The family of the 92-year-old woman fatally shot in a botched police raid filed a civil suit against the city and the Police Department on Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of a police killing that shocked the nation.
"The filing of this lawsuit continues my aunt's journey to justice," Sarah Dozier, a niece of the victim, Kathryn Johnston, wrote in a letter read aloud by lawyers on the courthouse steps.
"While I cannot bring her back to life, I want to ensure that her legacy is the removal of unconstitutional practices by the Atlanta PD so that this never happens to anyone else," she said.
The suit, filed in Fulton County Court by Johnston's family, does not specify a dollar amount, but Markel Hutchins, an Atlanta minister who is serving as a spokesman for the estate, said the family would consider anything less than a multimillion-dollar settlement an insult.
As a comparison, Hutchins cited a reverse-discrimination lawsuit that awarded $17 million to seven white Fulton County librarians who were ousted from their jobs and said the circumstances in that case were "far less egregious."
"The [revised] policy and procedures [of Atlanta police following Johnston's death] is printed in black but written in red blood," he said. "There is a debt owed, and the city ought to pay."
No family members were present at the news conference, nor at a vigil Wednesday night outside Johnston's Neal Street home that commemorated her death on Nov. 21 last year.
Hutchins said he did not know why no family members attended the vigil, but he said they are a family that prefers to stay out of the public eye. He also said family members have felt somewhat threatened and "feel like they could be a target."
Johnston, who was a widow, did not have any children. The woman closest to her was her niece, 75-year-old Dozier, who also was her caretaker and lives in metro Atlanta, Hutchins said.
"This has really worked a toll on her," Hutchins said.
City lawyer Beth Chandler would not comment on the suit.
Atlanta police Chief Richard Pennington said at the vigil that he had heard of the suit but also didn't want to comment on it.
City, Chief, Officers Sued
The suit charges the corrupt practices of the Police Department led to violations of the U.S. Constitution and state law.
It names the city of Atlanta, Pennington and individual officers involved in the fateful raid on Johnston's home.
The officers named include Gregg Junnier and Jason Smith, who have both pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and other state charges in the incident.
They face sentencing soon.
It also names Arthur Tesler, who has been indicted on federal charges in the case, and two supervisors involved in the raid, Sgt. W.T. Stallings and Lt. Stacie Gibbs.
Stallings and Gibbs have not been charged with any crime.
A federal investigation into the shooting and misconduct within the Police Department is ongoing.
William McKenney, Tesler's attorney, said he had not seen the suit but anticipated "that Mr. Tesler will be dismissed from the suit pretty soon."
John Garland, Smith's attorney, also had not seen the suit but said his client "doesn't have any money."
Police had raided Johnston's northwest Atlanta hosue using a warrant obtained with false testimony from an informant. They obtained a "no-knock" search warrant, meaning they could enter the house without warning.
A fearful Johnston apparently thought the police were criminals and brought out an old gun to stop the intruders. She fired one shot and missed. Police fired 39 times, fatally injuring her and wounding other officers.
They handcuffed Johnston as she lay dying, and then several officers attempted to plant marijuana in the house to cover up the mistake. They falsified reports to make it look as though drug dealing had occurred in the house.
The fiasco caused national headlines and led to a hiatus of almost a year on police efforts to shut down drug houses. The city's reborn narcotics unit, made up of entirely new officers, began investigating drug houses in October.
The suit charges the officers with violating Johnston's civil rights under the U.S. Constitution by improperly and illegally searching her home and using excessive force.
The suit argues the city is liable because it was "aware of and deliberately indifferent to this widespread and systemic corruption with the Atlanta Police Department."
"We today call upon the city of Atlanta to accept full responsibility for what they have done," family attorney Hezekiah Sistrunk Jr. said.
The suit charges the defendants violated numerous state laws, including trespass, assault, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, racketeering and conspiracy.
Sistrunk said Johnston's family tried repeatedly to meet with city officials to get a settlement but were rebuffed.
He said the family did not want to file a suit but now feels it had no choice.
Even as the suit was filed, city officials, including Pennington, met Wednesday night with Hutchins for a community church service and candlelight walk to Johnston's boarded-up home.
The event was heavy on pageantry, with ceremonial candles lit and two white doves released into the air.
Hutchins called Johnston's Neal Street "a sort of ground zero for Atlanta," and Pastor Anthony Motley of nearby Lindsay Street Baptist Church dubbed Johnston a "patron saint of the English Avenue neighborhood" whose death was "untimely martyrdom."
At the ceremony, police brass in full regalia and politicians far outnumbered neighborhood residents. At one point, Motley looked into the crowd of about 100 people and asked how many were English Avenue residents. Only 17 stood up.
"It's a show, that's all it is," said Marie Thomas, who like several other residents stood at a distance with their arms crossed and dismissed the event. "I can't even walk to the store at night without a male neighbor. There's drunks on the corner and women prostituting themselves, and the police just sit in their unmarked cars and do nothing. Where's the change?"
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