Jail Sentences for Cops Who Planted Pot on 92-Year Old They Killed in Botched Drug Raid

Human Rights

Three former Atlanta police officers were sentenced to prison time this week for the shooting death of a 92 year-old grandmother after breaking down her door during a botched drug raid.

Jason Smith, Gregg Junnier and Arthur Tesler received sentences ranging from five to 10 years on charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights resulting in death.

In November 2006, the officers -- all members of Atlanta's narcotics squad -- gunned down Kathryn Johnston inside her home. The police claimed to be acting on information they received from a confidential informant that drugs were being sold from the house. That allegation turned out to be false.

From the beginning evidence showed the officers manipulated a highly suspect system to justify an assault on Johnston's home.

As AlterNetfirst reported in April 2007, the cops began by planting evidence on a known drug dealer to solicit information about narcotics being sold out of Johnston's home; they then used fabricated testimony from a separate confidential informant to obtain a search warrant.

A terrified Johnston fired a single shot from a gun she kept when the police entered her home on a "no-knock" warrant; she hit no one. The cops responded with nearly 40 shots, killing her instantly.

The Johnston tragedy shined a spotlight on the cavalier use of informant information to obtain arrest and search warrants. The Justice Department launched a federal probe and, nine months after the shooting the House Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on law enforcement's use of confidential informants.

"We've got a serious problem here that goes beyond coughing up cases where snitches were helpful," said committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) at the hearing. "The whole criminal justice system is being intimidated by the way this thing is being run, and, in many cases, especially at the local level, mishandled.  A lot of people have died because of misinformation."

Back in July 2008, I reported for In These Times on a epidemic of innocent people being sent to death row based on the information of paid or otherwise compensated snitches.

What I discovered is a disturbing trend in which police are increasingly abandoning traditional investigative work in favor of insider cooperation -- what experts call a "dumbing down" of police work.

"The drug war has eroded law enforcement practices," said investigative reporter Ethan Brown, whose book, Snitch: Informants, Cooperators and the Corruption of Justice, traces the genesis of the informant culture and its effect on communities.

Today, falsified informant testimony accounts for nearly half of all wrongful convictions in capital cases nationwide, according to data from Northwestern University Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions. Since 1973, 129 innocent people were released from death row -- more than 50 of whom were sentenced to death based partly or wholly on false informant testimony.

"The government's use of criminal informants is largely secretive, unregulated and unaccountable," explained Alexandra Natapoff, an associate professor of law at Loyola University and one of the country's foremost authorities on the problems with confidential informants. "This lack of oversight and quality control leads to wrongful convictions, more crime, disrespect for the law and sometimes even official corruption."

Since the 2007 House Judiciary Committee hearing, little headway has been made in reforming the practice of using incentivized informants to send people to jail -- and, worse, execution.

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), 18 states now require corroboration of an accomplice's statements. Those that require corroboration for other forms of incentivized witnesses, however, are few and far between.

According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's office, in addition to the federal civil rights conspiracy charge in the Johnston case, in 2007 officers Junnier and Smith pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and related state charges in Fulton County (Georgia) Superior Court. Pursuant to their plea agreements, they are scheduled to be sentenced in state court on March 5 to the same sentence imposed in federal court, with the sentences to be served concurrently.

Tesler initially declined to plead guilty and was indicted in state court on charges of violation of oath of office by a public officer, false imprisonment and false statements. He pleaded guilty to the federal charge on October 30, 2008. Each defendant was also sentenced to serve 3 years on supervised release following his prison term, and collectively to pay $8,180 in restitution for the costs of Ms. Johnston's funeral and burial.

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