The decision not to bring charges against a Trooper who shot and killed a motorist in DeKalb County has highlighted the stark contrasts in how officer-involved shootings are handled across the state.
An announcement this week by DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston regarding a January 2020 incident involving a Trooper has striking similarities to a case pending in the southern end of the state, but the processes could not be any different.
TWO INCIDENTS 7 MONTHS AND 200 MILES APART
In DeKalb County, GSP Trooper Brandon Byrd was assisting an APD Officer on a stolen vehicle call. Byrd was standing next to the vehicle when the driver, AJ Smyrna, attempted to drive off. Byrd fired his weapon, striking Smyrna and killing him. Byrd was on the passenger side of the vehicle at the time of the incident.
According to a report by WSBtv in August of 2020, it was called into question by parties of the case that where the trooper was standing before firing, which was ‘critical to whether the shooting was justified.’ In Byrd’s case, he continued to shoot at the vehicle as it was driving away, according to an internal report.
Byrd was on administrative leave for six days before he returned to duty with a file marked ‘exonerated.’
DeKalb DA Sherry Boston made the decision not to charge Byrd on February 12, more than a year after the incident. The family of Smyrna has maintained throughout that the shooting was not justified and says a wrongful death suit is forthcoming.
“It was a very difficult decision,” Boston said in a statement to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “The key factor, in this case, was whether the vehicle driven by Mr. Smyrna could be used as an offensive weapon against the police officer. Absolutely, that car was in a position to hit, hurt and possibly kill Trooper Byrd. This was a split-second decision that Trooper Byrd had to make.”
In rural southern Georgia, however, a story with glaring similarities has yielded a wildly different result.
GSP Trooper Jacob Thompson attempted to initiate a traffic stop on August 7, 2020 on Julian Lewis, but pursuit ensued when Lewis fled, leading Thompson to perform a PIT maneuver to end the chase. When the vehicles came to a stop and Thompson exited his patrol car, he says he heard the engine revving, and believed Lewis was going to use his vehicle to harm him. Thompson fired one shot, striking Lewis in the head.
He was arrested one week after the incident, charged with felony murder and aggravated assault, and spent 108 days in jail before he was released in bond, which was only prompted after three attempts formal requests for bond by his attorneys. The felony arrest also meant Thompson was terminated from his position with the Georgia State Patrol.
The GBI has contended from the beginning that the use of force was not justified because Lewis’ car was disabled and off when agents arrived on the scene approximately two hours after the shooting. No mechanic examined the vehicle, but the car’s supposed immobility was the basis of the arrest. Thompson’s attorneys have refuted the claims in their entirety and offered witness testimony refuting the state’s narrative during a November 23rd bond hearing.
DEKALB COUNTY v. SCREVEN COUNTY
No public release of records
In the DeKalb County case, the Georgia State Patrol released internal investigation paperwork as well as videos pertaining to the case to the media months before the case was even considered by the district attorney’s office. In the Screven County case, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Georgia State Patrol have all declined to release similar records and defense attorneys are not entitled to the paperwork until the discovery process after an indictment, which has been delayed at the hands of the district attorney’s office.
Grand Jury Process
In DeKalb County, the district attorney’s office waited until the investigation concluded before considering whether or not the case should go before a grand jury for presentment.
In Screven County, the district attorney’s office worked with the GBI to take out warrants for the arrest of Thompson before all of the evidence was processed in the crime lab. The GBI case agent, Dustin Peak, testified during a preliminary hearing that Thompson posed a threat to the public, which prompted the immediate arrest, but when it came time to present the case before a grand jury some six months later, the district attorney’s office was not prepared. In a transcript from an emergency hearing on January 11th, DA Daphne Totten told a superior court judge that she was unsure of when the office would be prepared to present the case to a grand jury because “Quite frankly, it depends on how the evidence develops. Quite frankly.”
District Attorney Experience
While DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston has a diverse background, including time as both a judge and in private practice as a criminal defense attorney, Ogeechee District Attorney Daphne Totten is a career prosecutor. Boston was elected in 2016 after defeating a two-term incumbent in the Democratic primary. Totten ran unopposed and was sworn in in 2021.