City of Atlanta and Kathryn Johnston's Family Settle Wrongful Death Lawsuit for $4.9 Million

12:41 AM, Aug 17, 2010   |    comments
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  • A federal judge sentenced three former Atlanta Police officers to prison terms in connection with a botched drug raid that left 92 year old Kathryn Johnston dead.

ATLANTA, Ga. -- Drive along Neal Street in northwest Atlanta, to the boarded-up home of the late Kathryn Johnston -- and there she is.

"I wanted to depict her as if she was in her window, looking out."

Janssen Robinson is the artist who painted the larger-than-life mural of the 92-year-old Johnston, on the front of her house, in her honor, with her family's blessing, when he moved into the house next door following her death, to join the fight to save her neighborhood.

And on Monday evening, Robinson sat on his front porch reflecting on what's happened since November, 2006, when Johnston was killed by Atlanta police inside her home during a botched, illegal and unconstitutional raid.

"I'm proud of the mayor for stepping up and resolving this," Robinson said of the announcement by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed Monday that the city and Johnston's family had settled the family's lawsuit against the city.

"My heart goes out to the Johnston family," Mayor Reed said.

Walk into Atlanta City Hall, where Mayor Kasim Reed made his announcement flanked by members of the City Council, explaining that the city settled the Johnston family's $18 million lawsuit for $4.9 million --

Kathryn Johnston is there. What happened to her has revolutionized the Atlanta Police Department's training and policies and procedures.

That night, plain-clothed, undercover Atlanta police narcotics officers stormed into her home on a no-knock warrant that they had obtained fraudulently and illegally, using an allegation by an informant that there were illegal drugs at that address.

Johnston had a handgun and shot at least once at the intruders as they were breaking through her front door.

The officers shot multiple times, their bullets flying in every direction, and killed Johnston.

They did not find any drugs inside her house; they planted drugs there to frame her and cover up what they'd done.

"Hopefully, the trust in the Atlanta Police Department will be restored," said Jane Lamberti Sams and the other attorneys with the Cochran Firm in Atlanta, who represented Johnston's estate and her niece, Sarah Dozier, in the lawsuit against the city.

They speak of Johnston's legacy.

So does family spokesman, the Rev. Markel Hutchins.

"Kathryn Johnston did not, in fact, die in vain."

Four police officers went to prison.

Ten more were disciplined.

The narcotics unit was overhauled.

The City Council formed a citizen review board to watchdog the police department.

A tipline is being set up so officers can turn in other officers anonymously.

The city abolished the controversial law that allowed police to arrest people on mere suspicion of drugs, without warrants or even evidence.

According to City Councilmember Ivory Young, who represents the neighborhoods that include Neal St., NW -- in 2006, the year Johnston was killed, police arrested 7,700 people under that law, yet judges ended up dismissing 6,400 of the cases.

That sort of warrantless round-up is illegal, now.

"And because of the blood of Kathryn Johnston, we have a better police department, we have a better city," Rev. Hutchins said, "where people are clear, that if you violate citizens' civil and human rights, perhaps you'll have to pay, as well."

Attorney Jane Lamberti Sams said the Johnston case underscored that, in the United States, "if you're going to bust into somebody's home, you have to have probable cause."

Hutchins said it was never a case about some rogue police officers "who had made some arbitrary decision to violate the policy and practice" of the Atlanta Police Department. "They had been engaged in behavior that they'd been trained to be engaged in."

"Our police department has totally revamped the way we do business associated with narcotics investigations," said the new Police Chief, George Turner, who was confirmed by the City Council on Monday.

"We constantly monitor our processes as it relates to narcotics investigations," Chief Turner said. "And we're also doing a switch-out of those employees on a regular basis, as well," which, he said, conforms to national police standards, "to prevent any possibilities of wrong-doing by way of the department and the officers assigned to that unit.... It's just good practice to rotate people out, to prevent any possibilities of people being compromised in the assignment that they're in."

The man who lives next door to the Johnston home, Janssen Robinson, said the conditions that make the neighborhood a magnet for crime have not gone away. "I think the elements that existed before Kathryn Johnston's death still exist," he said. "I would say that it's conducive for another problem to occur."

He is encouraged that police training and policies have been transformed since Johnston's death. "That, at the very least, makes it better."

"I think this is an awful tragedy," Mayor Reed said. "We have a ways to go, on a number of fronts, in earning the confidence of the public."



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