Kathryn Johnston: A Year Later

92-year-old woman's death has done little to curb the use of paramilitary police tactics around the country.

It was one year ago this week that narcotics officers in Atlanta, Georgia broke into the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston.

They had earlier arrested a man with a long rap sheet on drug charges. That man told the police officers that they'd find a large stash of cocaine in Johnston's home. When police forced their way into Johnston's home, she met them holding a rusty old revolver, fearing she was about to be robbed. The police opened fire, and killed her.

Shortly after the shooting, the police alleged that they had paid an informant to buy drugs from Ms. Johnston's home. They said she fired at them first, and wounded two officers. And they alleged they found marijuana in her home.

We now know that these were all lies. In fact, everything about the Kathryn Johnston murder was corrupt. The initial arrest of the ex-con came via trumped-up charges. The police then invented an informant for the search warrant, and lied about overseeing a drug buy from Johnston's home.

Ms. Johnston didn't actually wound any of the officers. They were wounded by fragments of ricochet from their own storm of bullets. And there was no marijuana. Once they realized their mistake, the officers handcuffed Ms. Johnston and left her to bleed and die on the floor of her own home while they planted marijuana in her basement.

We now know that it was routine for Atlanta's narcotics officers to lie on drug warrants. We know that judges in the city rather systematically approved those warrants with no scrutiny at all (the judge in the Johnston case literally rubber-stamped the warrant), abrogating their oaths as guardians of the Fourth Amendment.

Two months before the Johnston raid police officers nearly killed another elderly woman in the same neighborhood after forcing their way into her home in a mistaken raid. A year earlier, they had mistakenly raided the home next door to Johnston's. And just days before, Atlanta police had conducted another forced-entry raid that turned up all of two marijuana cigarettes.

We now know that once the officers in the Johnston case knew they were in trouble, they pressured one of their actual drug informants to lie for them, and vouch for the fabricated account of the controlled buy.

That informant--Alex White--refused, and bravely came forward to tell the media what had happened. Had he given in to the pressure put on him by APD narcotics officers, the world would still likely believe Kathryn Johnston was a drug dealer, and her killing was justified.

In fact, subsequent investigations showed that the corruption at the Atlanta Police Department was so pervasive, Police Chief Richard Pennington eventually had to replace the entire narcotics division.

Atlanta is still in a state of self-examination since the Kathryn Johnston case. To its credit, the city is considering real reform in the way it conducts its drug policing. Politicians at the municipal, state and federal level may guide that process, as may a lawsuit from Ms. Johnston's family.

But beyond Atlanta, the beat goes on. All across the country, narcotics units and SWAT teams are still kicking down doors in the middle of the night and still deploying flash grenades and using aggressive, paramilitary tactics--and they're still doing all of this to apprehend people suspected of nonviolent crimes. And they're still making mistakes.

In February of this year, 16-year-old Daniel Castillo, Jr. was killed in a police raid on his family's home in Texas. Castillo had no criminal record. A SWAT officer broke open the door to the bedroom as Castillo, his sister, and her infant son were sleeping. When Castillo rose from the bed after being awoken to his sister's screams, the SWAT officer shot him in the face.

In March, police in Spring Lake, Minn., acting on an informant's tip, raided the home of Brad and Nicole Thompson. The couple was forced on the ground at gun point and warned by an officer, "If you move, I'll shoot you in the f___ing head." Police had the wrong house.

In June, a 72-year-old woman on oxygen was thrown to the ground at gunpoint in a mistaken drug raid near Durnago, Colo.

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  • ||

    If there is anything that reminds me why I am an anarchist it is this case. Rest in peace, Kathryn Johnston. I'm sorry that the thugs in my pathetic city are in charge.

    Something I'm not thankful for this season.

  • pdog||

    I was having a good day until I saw this reminder of that trajedy. Now I'm all angry again... thanks! >:(

  • ||

    On behalf of right thinking people across this country, Thank You Radley for all of your hard work. I often tell folks of the sad tale of Kathryn Johnston and how it is NOT an isolated incident, but business as usual in narcotics law enforcement. This map that you and Lee Laslo created has proven a real eye opener to those who support these Gestapo tactics.

    Again, Thank You. REMEMBER KATHRYN JOHNSTON!

  • ||

    Thanks for keeping watch, Radley.

  • Richardson-Paul \'08||

    End the WoD.

  • Guy Montag||

  • ||

    Nearly two-thirds of those polled don't believe "aggressive entry tactics such as battering down doors, setting off flash-bang grenades, or conducting searches in the middle of the night" are appropriate tactics when the suspect is a nonviolent drug offender.


    Then clearly the answer is to label all drug offenders as "potentially violent" or "potentially armed". After all, a hit of crack or meth turns one into a lethal weapon don't cha know.

  • ||

    Then clearly the answer is to label all drug offenders as "potentially violent" or "potentially armed". After all, a hit of crack or meth turns one into a lethal weapon don't cha know.

    Cops aren't as tough as they used to be. That 125 lb crackhead could just take out two highly trained , physically fit cops if overwhelming force wasn't used. God knows, 92 year old women have been proven dangerous in Atkanta. I sometimes wonder if 21st century LEOs pee themselve on the roller coaster. They're afraid for their lives constantly. Barking dogs, old woman, children in bed... gotta do the paramilitary raids to "protect the officers".

    Fuckin' cowards.

  • ||

    The numbers are surprising. Nearly two-thirds of those polled don't believe "aggressive entry tactics such as battering down doors, setting off flash-bang grenades, or conducting searches in the middle of the night" are appropriate tactics when the suspect is a nonviolent drug offender.

    Your language leads me to believe that you are surprised the percentages are that high. Me, I am depressed the numbers are that low.

  • ||

    I don't know what can be said that hasn't already been said and documented by Radley and others.

    I am at least thankful for the internet, otherwise these egregious violations of liberty and human dignity would go unreported and unnoticed. Thanks for everyone eho is part of the solution and not part of the problem. That includes everyone here at H&R. You guys and gals are the bomb! Happy thanksgiving.

  • ||

    oops!

    eho=who

  • ||

    Your language leads me to believe that you are surprised the percentages are that high. Me, I am depressed the numbers are that low.

    I am both surprised the numbers are that high and depressed the numbers are that low.

  • ||

    Sickening, How can this be let happen.. The world is a horrible place, And America is making it worse every day

  • ||

    Yeah, I actually did expect the numbers to at least be slightly lower given all the anti-drug propaganda that's been pushed over the years.

    It's good to know that at least most people in this country know better...for now.

  • shezmu||

    Hmm, kinda pushes the case for privatized police departments when you think about it. A free market would eat overly aggressive police officers alive. Of course, I'm just thinking out loud here.

  • Guy Montag||

  • Egon||

    The world is a horrible place, And America is making it worse every day

    Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Paul.

  • rojo de verde||

    Public and privatized drug police forces should aggressively eat each other alive. By the way ...Blackwater is coming home. I hope that the K. Johnston case is the straw that breaks the back of a very evil camel.

  • ||

    "Don't let the door hit you on the way out."

    For you younger readers, this is a substitute for the old outrage of the Vietnam War, which was "America, love it or leave it". To which the standard response was "America, change it or loose it". And the counter to this was "Up yours".

    It is shocking how little we have progressed as a nation in the last 40 years. This is one of the reasons I am so glad to have split this pop stand.

  • Mary Neal||

    See http://wrongfuldeathoflarryneal.com

    News reports indicate that Ms. Johnston's family are being represented in their suit against Georgia police by The (Johnny) Cochran Firm. How can this be true, when the law office at 127 Peachtree Street, Atlanta, GA, widely advertised on TV and the Internet as being the Atlanta, GA office of The Cochran Firm, represented in Fulton Co. GA Superior Court that it is certainly NOT the Cochran Firm and has no affiliation with same? The judge therefore dismissed my family's fraud case against that devious law firm in May 2006. This means there is no Cochran Firm in GA. How can that same law firm go to the same court now in defense of Ms. Johnston's family? Seems that any law office that has had itself declared nonexistent by a superior court would have trouble going to that same venue a year later and flexing its muscles in anyone's behalf. What do you think?

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