‘Justified by facts & law’ - Atlanta officer not to face charges for shooting man in back

Nicholas Thomas (Photo courtesy of Cobb County sheriff's office)
A grand jury says it won’t press charges against a police officer who shot a man outside a tire store in Atlanta. Sergeant Kenneth Owens killed Nicholas Thomas as he allegedly drove a customer’s car towards officers after they tried arrest him.

Thomas died from a single gunshot to his upper back on his right side on March 24, as he drove a car towards the police officers, who were trying to serve him with a parole violation.

Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said in a statement that he had sympathies with Thomas’s family and called the loss of life “unfortunate.” However, he understood why the officers took the course of action outside the Goodyear tire store.

Smyrna Police Sgt. Kenneth Owens (Photo courtesy of Smyrna Police Dept.)

"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, as cited by AP. "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."

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Cobb County Police Department had both said the shooting was "justified under the facts and the law." Owens was initially placed on administrative leave, while police say that he returned to administrative work in May.

The Thomas family are planning their next steps of action and have been meeting with their lawyer, Mawuli Davis. The attorney said that a news conference is planned for Friday, but was not releasing any further details.

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“Of all the officers who were there, only one officer felt his life was threatened,” Davis said last month. He also noted the bullets were fired in the side of the Maserati, as it sped past the officers. “Unless a car can travel sideways, I don’t know how you can be in fear of your life,” the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.

The results of an autopsy published last month showed that the fatal bullet had entered Thomas’ body in his right upper back, moved left and downward before puncturing ribs, both lungs and the aorta, according to the Cobb Medical Examiner.

Jim Chambers, an organizer with Rise Up Georgia, said that Owens should be prosecuted and that the results of the autopsy “galvanized the belief among a lot of people,” while adding “there’s going to be a lot of anger.”

Thomas had been working at the Goodyear store, when officers showed up at lunchtime to serve the arrest warrant. However, according to police statements, upon seeing the officers, Thomas jumped into a customer’s white Maserati.

According to Reynolds, during the course of a video, which showed the incident, but not the shooting, the car is seen going back and forth around the building several times with officers imploring Thomas to get out of the car and show his hands on at least two occasions. Police cars had blocked the only way in or out of the parking lot.

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The car then began to accelerate and two police officers were forced to jump out of the way. Owens told investigators that he had also had to jump out of the way, Reynolds said. Owens then saw an officer running up and feared that the officer could be hit if the car rounded the corner quickly. Therefore he decided to fire three shots at the car, Reynolds added, according to AP.

This prompted Owens to fire multiple shots at the vehicle, one of which killed the 23 year-old Goodyear employee. Owens, a Smyrna police officer, said he was acting in self-defense.

“He has interacted with thousands of citizens, made hundreds of arrests, contacted numerous armed individuals, including barricaded suspects, and encountered numerous wanted felons,” Smyrna police said in a statement, as cited by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “He has been involved in more than 35 foot or vehicle pursuits and has made more than 100 felony arrests.”