ATLANTA (AP) — A grand jury found that a police officer was justified in shooting a man outside a metro Atlanta tire store where he worked, recommending no further action in the case, a prosecutor said Thursday.
Authorities have said Smyrna police Sgt. Kenneth Owens fatally shot 23-year-old Nicholas Thomas on March 24 as he drove a customer’s Maserati toward officers, who were trying to serve him with a felony parole violation warrant outside a Goodyear tire store.
Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said in an emailed statement that the loss of life is unfortunate and that he sympathizes with Thomas’ family.
“But when he drove the vehicle toward officers in the manner he did, the officer who fired the shots was justified under the law to use lethal force,” the statement says. “Police officers in Georgia are authorized to fire their weapons to protect themselves or others from immediate bodily harm. That is what happened in this case.”
Reynolds said both the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Cobb County Police Department concluded the shooting was “justified under the facts and the law.”
Attorney Mawuli Davis, representing Thomas’ family, said Thursday he was meeting with the family to discuss next steps and had no immediate comment. He planned a news conference for Friday.
The medical examiner’s report, released last month, said Thomas died from a gunshot wound after a bullet entered his upper back on the right side. The bullet hit his lungs and aorta before coming to rest in his upper chest on the left side.
Davis said last month that the fact that Thomas was shot in the back “reinforces the position we have taken that he was not a threat to the officers.” It also seems to contradict the police assertion that Thomas was driving toward officers, according to Davis.
In a phone call Thursday afternoon with The Associated Press, Reynolds described what can be seen in surveillance video from the Goodyear store. The moment of the shooting wasn’t caught on video, but the footage shows events leading up to it, Reynolds said
Thomas can be seen getting into the Maserati after a supervisor told him to move it to one of the service bays. While he’s in the car, two Smyrna police cars pull up.
Over the course of the video, the Maserati is seen going back and forth around the building several times with officers yelling at Thomas to get out and show his hands on at least two occasions, Reynolds said. The police cars had blocked the only way in or out of the parking lot.
At one point, the car accelerates through puddles so quickly water can be seen splashing up, and two Smyrna officers had to jump out of its way, Reynolds said.
Owens told investigators shortly after the shooting that he’d had to jump out of the car’s way as it accelerated toward him, Reynolds said. Owens then saw an officer running up and feared the officer could be hit if the car rounded the corner quickly, so he fired three times at the car, Reynolds said.
The car is then seen driving erratically up over a curb onto grass where it came to rest, Reynolds said.
One of the Smyrna officers who was there that day had tried to serve a warrant at Thomas’ home the night before and told Thomas’ mother that he had a warrant and needed to turn himself in, Reynolds said.
Owens was placed on administrative leave afterward, and police said in May that he had returned to work at a desk job.
Smyrna police initially said Cobb County police would investigate because the shooting happened in their jurisdiction. But Cobb County officers were on the scene as backup when the shooting happened, and Thomas’ family and others called for an investigation by the GBI.
Reynolds said just over a week after the shooting that he and Cobb County police Chief John Houser decided to ask the GBI to investigate “in the spirit of transparency and openness.”
Smyrna police released a statement Thursday saying the department “is satisfied this incident was thoroughly scrutinized, investigated, and evaluated.”