Crime

Felony Murder Charge in the Kathryn Johnston Death

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It looks like at least one of the officers in the shooting death of Kathryn Johnston will face felony murder charges.

…the district attorney expressed outrage over the shooting in a Feb. 6 letter to Markel Hutchins, spokesman for the family of victim Kathryn Johnston.

"The death of Mrs. Johnston constitutes one of the greatest tragedies ever to occur in Fulton County," Howard wrote. "I will not rest until every person responsible for her death is held accountable. …

"When homicides occur in Fulton County, whether committed by a civilian or a law enforcement official, it is the obligation of the district attorney's office to take the appropriate legal actions. … The public will not tolerate separate treatment for police officers."

This is encouraging news, but I'd throw out a couple of cautions. First, it's important that Atlanta recognize the shooting for the systemic failure it was, and not just blow it off as the unfortunate acts of a few rogue police officers. Fact is, the use of confidential informants creates all sorts of incentives for shortcuts and malfeasance, and allows for this kind of thing to happen. There need to be more stopgaps put in place, not just limiting the use of informants, but to double-check and verify when they are used. And of course, it would be helpful if Atlanta revisited the whole issue of using confrontational, forced-entry raids for nonviolent crimes. 

When Alberta Spruill was killed during a no-knock raid in New York a few years ago, Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields encouraged other victims of botched no-knocks to come forward, in order to get a feel for the full extent of the problem.  She then issued a report documented the cases and making recommendations for reform.  Atlanta should use the Johnston raid in a similar way.

My other reservation is that encouraging as it is to see a prosecutor eager to hold police to the same standards he holds everyone else, I can't get terribly excited about a felony murder charge. If the reports of making up the informant, then threatening a "stand-in" informant into lying are true, I think these officers need to go to jail for a very long time. But I'll never be comfortable with criminal charges that lack the component of intent, no matter who they're levied against.