Grand Jury: Deadly Force Against Ga. Pastor 'Legally Justified'

The officers involved in a botched drug bust that left a young Baptist pastor dead should not face criminal charges, according to a Georgia county grand jury.

"Concerning the actions of the officers involved in the death of Jonathan Ayers on Sept. 1, 2009, we find the use of deadly force by Agent Billy Shane Harrison was legally justified based upon his objectively reasonably belief that such use of force was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or others," the Stephens County Grand Jury expressed in a four-page statement.

"Based upon this finding, we the Grand Jury believe that the officers involved in this incident would be immune from criminal prosecution pursuant to Official Code of Georgia Annotated 16-3-24.2," they added, citing a law which states in part that a person who uses threats or force in defense of self or others is immune from criminal prosecution.

On Sept. 1, 28-year-old Ayers was shot by plain-clothes agents from a multi-county drug task force as he was leaving a gas station convenient store.

Though Ayers was not the initial target the drug sting, officers confronted the pastor of Shoal Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia after they saw him drop off a woman who they say had twice been seen selling drugs in the small town of Toccoa, Ga.

The officers said they approached Ayers' vehicle and yelled "Police. Stop" as he was pulling his car out of the spot he was parked in. Despite the shouts, Ayers stepped on the gas, hitting one officer, who then fired into the car, believing his life was in danger, according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) spokesman John Bankhead.

A second shot was fired when Ayers put his car into drive and maneuvered it toward the officer in a "threatening manner," added Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley.

Ayers drove for only a short distance before crashing into a utility pole, wounded from a shot to the liver.

The pastor later died at a local hospital about an hour after going into surgery. The woman Ayers gave a ride to, Kayla Barrett, meanwhile, was arrested on drug charges.

Barrett told a local newspaper that she had known Ayers for four years and that the pastor was ministering to her on the day of his death.

"I've been doing drugs for nine years," Barrett said.

"He told me I was too young to be living like I was living," she said. "He didn't want me to waste my life."

The shooting and subsequent death of Ayers has since been investigated by the GBI, whose case file was provided to the 18-member grand jury as they met in special session Dec. 15-18. The material from the investigation was released to the public this past Monday.

Following the grand jury's announcement, Roland Stroberg, the attorney representing Ayers' widow, said the family was "extremely disappointed," and that a lawsuit would be forthcoming.

"We are in the process of gathering all the facts surrounding this terrible incident," Stroberg told the Gainesville Times. "Once all these facts are in public view, we feel it will be abundantly clear that there was no legal justification for the undercover drug agent to shoot and kill Jonathan Ayers in broad daylight on the streets of Toccoa, Ga."

Stroberg, who has been critical of how the case was presented to the grand jury, said the panel that convened last week was charged with deciding only whether the case should go to a separate grand jury for possible criminal prosecution.

In a statement released last Thursday, one day prior to the grand jury's announcement, Ayer's widow expressed how "deeply disappointed" she was to hear of how the case was presented.

"I intend to follow the law and all recourse available to me to see that justice is done, and that all those responsible for Jonathan's death are held accountable," she added.

Ayers' widow, who was pregnant when her husband died, expects to give birth to a baby boy in February.