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3 officers face grand jury, possible murder indictment

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The Clayton County District Attorney's Office is moving to bring murder indictments against three police officers who shot and killed a 23-year-old during a prostitution sting.

A police video of the death of Robert Harvest Turman doesn't align with the Clayton County Police officers' accounts of the March 29, 2007 shooting, according to prosecutors.

"That's the key piece of evidence," said John Turner, chief executive assistant district attorney. "It speaks for itself. Based on what they say and what it shows, there's enough discrepancy to raise eyebrows."

Police said the officers shot Turman four times in the chest with .40-caliber bullets as the Jonesboro man attempted to flee the scene of a prostitution sting, running his tan Nissan pick-up truck into one officer's left leg.

The sting operation involved officers working undercover, posing as prostitutes outside a row of motels at Old Dixie Highway near where it meets Tara Boulevard. Turman was allegedly one of eight men who approached the decoys that Thursday night. He allegedly offered to pay $20 for a sex act. When the decoy gave a sign to uniformed members of the Special Operations Unit, they swooped in and attempted to arrest him on a misdemeanor charge of pandering.

After the fatal shooting, investigators found a clear plastic bag inside his truck, containing 31 bags of crack cocaine, seven bags of powdered cocaine, six bags of marijuana, one "cookie" of crack cocaine, and 16 ecstasy pills, all packaged to sell, according to a deputy chief.

Police said Turman was attempting to flee the scene because he didn't want the officers to find the drugs. While a pandering conviction only carries the maximum possible sentence of 12 months in prison, a trafficking conviction carries the possible maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. Police said Turman was attempting to flee and was willing to hurt the officers if necessary.

The officers, who have not been named publicly, said Turman did not respond to verbal commands to stop and had pinned one policeman up against his patrol car, with the Nissan. The officer only suffered a bruise to his left thigh.

The three policemen were suspended for a week, while the department reviewed the case, and reinstated when internal affairs investigators found the shooting "conformed to department policy."

The case was turned over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, as is standard for officer-involved shootings in Clayton County, and the GBI turned its findings over to the district attorney's office.

Prosecutors in the district attorney's office, upon reviewing the evidence, has decided the shooting may not have been justified and are writing up homicide indictments to present to a grand jury next month.

"[Police] say he was trying to drive off or threaten them with the car," Turner said. "I didn't see that in what I saw."

The officers' attorneys agree the video is key evidence, but say they will have to explain police procedures to show a grand jury the officers did what they were supposed to do.

"I think in any situation, let alone the use of deadly force, there's always additional considerations that have to be explained to those who aren't trained in law enforcement," said Grady Dukes, the attorney for the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, who is representing two of the officers.

"Once the entire situation is explained to them, we're hopeful that the grand jury will see fit to issue a 'no-bill,' in this case," Dukes said.

According to Keith Martin, the former police officer representing one of the men involved in the shooting, said the video lasts for about two minutes and 12 seconds, from the time Turman drove up to the undercover officer, to the time "it's all over." Martin said the shooting happened within about 20 seconds.

"We think the video, when explained and put in context, will clearly show this shooting was justified," Martin said.

Turman was one of two people killed in officer-involved shootings in the county in 2007. The other one, involving sheriff's deputies and a man who was allegedly mentally ill and carrying a knife, is still under investigation. In 2006, there were four officer-involved shootings in Clayton County. All of them were ruled justified homicides.

Though some of the deaths brought calls for prosecution from family members and civil rights groups, no one publicly protested Turman's death or pushed the district attorney's office to go after the officers involved.

"Nobody wants an abusive or unnecessarily violent police force," Martin said, "but nobody wants police officers who are timid, because they crawl into their police cruiser at the beginning of a shift worried they might face a situation that will make them have to face a murder indictment."

A grand jury is expected to hear the evidence against the three officers on June 11.