A wrongful death civil lawsuit filed against Columbus Assistant Chief of Police Joe Johnson for the 2008 shooting death of Justin Smith has been settled. At the time of his death, Smith was a known bond jumper and had been evading capture for months.
The settlement was reportedly reached Jan. 24, 2012.
Deborah Ray, Smith’s mother, originally sued for $75,000, but the terms of the settlement were not revealed. Wrongful death is a tort or civil wrongdoing and not a criminal offense.
Filed in May, 2008, Smith’s mother, Ray, claimed her son was shot and killed “execution style” by Johnson on Jan. 31, 2008.
According to court documents, Johnson and fellow police officer Sgt. Rick Jones responded to 717 15th Street North just before 1:00 p.m. for a call of a burglary in progress. Once police arrived, the owner of the residence, Adam Chandler, told Johnson and Jones that he suspected someone had been illegally staying at the residence. Chandler says he got a phone call from a neighbor reporting someone coming and going from the home and when Chandler went to investigate, the storm door on the front of the house was locked from the inside.
Court documents claim that Chandler “said to himself, ‘Durn….Somebody done broke in my house. The storm door ain’t got no business being locked. Let me see how they got in.’ ”
Chandler then walked around to the back of the home to check the windows and the rear door. He found the back door had been kicked in but claims it was “pushed nearly closed.” He looked in a window next to the back door and saw an interior door, off the hinges, leaning up against the inside of the back door.
Documents say Chandler said, “For them to have set up like that, they got to be in there now.” That is when Chandler called 911.
Jones responded to the scene first, followed by a Johnson in a separate vehicle. Shortly thereafter, Officer Randy Karg arrived. Johnson told Karg to position himself near the front door saying, “He’ll probably go out front.”
Jones and Johnson accessed the backyard through a gate and then went to the back door of the home. Officer Kenneth Brewer then arrived on scene and Karg instructed him to go around to the other side of the home.
Simultaneously, Johnson and Jones both drew their service weapons, .40 caliber Sig Sauer pistols, and pushed the back door open. As they did so, the object leaning against the back door fell to the floor, making a loud noise.
Sgt. Jones entered the residence first with Johnson close behind.
According to Johnson, he had his gun in his right hand and his flashlight in his left because “the house was dark inside.” The two then proceeded up the hallway, toward the front of the house.
After Johnson and Jones entered the residence, officer Brewer noticed someone inside the home trying to escape from a window on the northwest side. Brewer drew his taser but the suspect ducked back inside the home when he made eye contact with the officer. Brewer yelled to the suspect to “get to the ground ” and yelled for Lt. Karg. Karg then ran to the front porch and guarded the front door.
Still inside the residence, Jones and Johnson were proceeding up the hallway on the south side of the house when, court documents state, “a black male came out of a side room on their left, turned to his left, toward the front door and ran away.”
Jones yelled at the suspect, later identified as Smith, to “freeze, freeze, freeze” but Smith instead ran “in the opposite direction, down the hall, into a room at the front of the house and to the front door.”
Seeing Lt. Karg on the front porch, Smith stopped and put his hands on the frame of the door. Thinking the suspect had surrendered, Jones holstered his weapon and circled behind him. As Jones grabbed the suspect’s left wrist in an attempt to detain him, Smith ducked and ran out of Jones’ grasp toward Johnson.
That is when a single gunshot was fired.
Court documents claim that Smith was “within an inch and a half” of Johnson’s weapon when it discharged the single round. Smith was shot in the chest, just below and slightly to the rear of his right underarm. The bullet struck his ribs as it entered, continued through his right lung and through the aorta of his heart before it came to rest in his chest, near the sternum.
Despite the would-be lethal gunshot wound, Smith still managed to run down the hall and stumble out the back door before collapsing, face down, in the yard. Sgt. Jones chased him down the hall and out
the door, radioing for an ambulance.
According to a tape of the incident from a recorder on Jones’ lapel, Jones began pleading with Smith to “hang in there” saying, “Come on dude, hang in there.”
Jones also repeatedly asked Smith his name but he did not respond. Moments later, Smith stopped breathing.
With the help of Lt. Karg, Jones began to administer CPR in spite of the blood in Smith’s mouth. Paramedics then arrived and transported Smith to the hospital but he died en route.
According to Dr. Steven Hayne, a expert witness on behalf of Ray’s mother, the chances of Smith surviving were “nil”, further claiming that Smith would not have survived “even if he had been in an operating room at the time.”
After the shooting, police swarmed the home. Now-retired Criminal Investigator Louis Alexander arrived on scene and escorted a visibly shaken Johnson to a waiting squad car, holding him up by the small of his back.
Mayor Robert Smith also responded to the scene and while many claim the shooting was a “pure accident” others, such as Justin Smith’s mother, no relation to the mayor, claim otherwise.
Before his time as mayor, Robert Smith was the sole proprietor of Smith Bonding Company and served as a bail bondman. Smith, who had served as vice mayor during his time as a city councilman, was elected to mayor in October 2006 when then-mayor Jeffrey Rupp abruptly abandoned the position.
Robert Smith and court documents state that he signed his bonding company over to Susie Somerville, his long time girlfriend and mother of one of his children, on Jan. 1, 2007. While the mayor admits that he still maintains his bonding license, he denies having any involvement in the company, saying, “What Susie has is completely different from Robert Smith. I still have Smith Bonding but her company and what she does has nothing to do with it.”
According to court documents and local knowledge, Justin Smith was a bond jumper and had a warrant out for his arrest at the time of his death. The warrant was for contempt of court that stemmed from an incident on Aug. 28, 2005.
According to those close to Justin Smith, he and his two brothers burst into the home of Peggie Liddell on Roanoke Circle looking for her son, Devegas, in retaliation for an attack on their pregnant younger sister.
Devegas allegedly attacked the young girl and she had to be taken to the hospital as a result of her injuries. Devegas was not home at the time but Justin Smith was arrested and charged with burglary and malicious mischief. He received a $10,000 bond.
On Sept. 21, 2005 Somerville, who was working for Robert Smith at the time, wrote the bond for $10,000 under the name Smith Bonding Company.
Smith’s trial was set for Feb. 15, 2006 then continued to May 2006, then to November 2006 before finally being conducted in February 2007.
Justin Smith did not appear at his trial and Somerville was ordered to produce him 90 days hence on May 27, 2007. A bench warrant was issued for Smith. He had not been found by May 27 but the bond was not called in and Somerville was not ordered to pay the $10,000. She received a 90 day extension for August 2007. Somerville got a second 90 day bond extension in August and the new deadline to produce Smith or pay the ten grand was now November 2007. Smith was once again unable to be located and a third extension was granted in November. The new deadline was Feb. 13, 2008.
According to an article that appeared in Packet 761 less than a week after the shooting, District Attorney Forest Allgood said that it was “unusual” to get more than two extensions saying that his office handles “hundreds of bond cases and apparently we missed it.” He indicated that there would not have been another extension granted after Feb. 13, 2008 but added that the deadline did not mean Somerville would lose $10,000. She would have to put up the money on that date but according to Allgood, state law allows bondsmen a year to have such forfeitures put aside if the individual is found in the meantime. He added, however, “It’s definitely in the interest of the bondsmen to bring him in on deadline.”
When questioned if Somerville being on the hook for $10,000 had anything to do with his appearance on the scene of the shooting, the mayor stated that such questions were indicative of a “witch-hunt” adding, “that has all been cleared. Let a dead horse lay.”
Justin Smith’s mother and family members believed that Robert Smith was directly involved in the death of her son because he had been at her residence on Pandora Drive less than 48 hours prior to the shooting.
According to court documents, one of Ray’s neighbors allegedly went to the mayor to complain about Justin Smith. After the mayor spoke with the neighbor, he then in turn went to then Chief of Police Joseph St. John.
The details of that conversation are unclear but shortly thereafter on Jan. 28, 2008, Lt. Carl Kemp and several other officers went out to Ray’s house on Pandora Drive looking for Justin Smith. According to Packet 761, an unnamed police officer stated “some of the detectives were pressed into duty for the assignment.” Court documents state that Kemp then called the mayor for assistance in speaking with Ray to “see if she would cooperate with CPD to find and arrest her son, Justin Smith.”
The mayor said he complied because “that was my district” when he was a city councilman. Robert Smith reportedly asked Ray if Kemp and several other gathered officers could search the home to look for Justin Smith but Ray refused because the officers did not have a warrant. Smith says he then left the scene. Ray, however, claims that Smith told her that he “wouldn’t be responsible for what might happen” if she did not cooperate with police. The mayor denies her claim.
When the story originally ran in 2008, the mayor asked that nothing be printed about his appearance at Ray’s home saying, “I don’t want animosity or friction. The family and the police department are going through a lot right now and we don’t need more turmoil.”
In Packet 761 St. John said he received a phone call from the mayor regarding Justin Smith and the neighbor’s complaint.The mayor asked St. John “What we’re gonna do about this person (the neighbor). She’s very upset.” [According to Packet 761, the neighbor identified Justin Smith as a possible burglar and voiced her concerns to the mayor. That neighbor was never identified.SF] St. John said that he in turn told Kemp the woman was “upset.” St. John stated, “Basically, I told Carl we need to find this guy if he’s burglarizing places.”
The chief said Kemp called the mayor when Ray refused to let them in the house saying, “They wanted him to talk to her.”
When asked if he was aware that Susie Somerville would be on the hook for the $10,000 in bond money if Justin Smith was not found soon, St. John responded “I’m not 100% sure I’d heard that.”
While St. John’s memory on the situation was unclear, word circulated after the shooting that Dawson Johnson, a longtime friend of the mayor and a bondsman/bounty hunter had been looking for Justin Smith, going so far as distributing fliers with Smith’s photo. One of the fliers was allegedly posted on the CPD bulletin board.
Ray initially sued Joe Johnson, Rick Jones, Mayor Robert Smith and the City of Columbus but a summary judgement was returned and all but Johnson were dropped from the suit. The shooting was also taken before the grand jury but received a “no-bill.”
Johnson’s involvement with the shooting has been called into question. As the assistant chief, Johnson does not routinely respond to calls. Also, it is unclear if Johnson was up to date on his firearm regulations. Court documents claim that Smith was shot with Johnson’s regulation .40 Sig Sauer but when interviewed by The Packet a week after the shooting, Coroner Greg Merchant said Smith appeared to have been shot by a 9 mm. Autopsy results were not readily available but Merchant stated on Wednesday that the bullet could have easily been from a .40 caliber weapon saying “The appearance of a 9 mm and a .40 cal laying there in your hand, the difference is minuscule. They’re very, very similar in size.”
After an investigation by Mississippi Bureau of Investigations, the shooting was ruled accidental and both Johnson and Jones were cleared. Ray filed the wrongful death lawsuit against Johnson, Jones, Mayor Smith and The City of Columbus. All but Johnson received a summary judgement which claimed that none of the other three, including the city, could be held reasonably responsible. However, Johnson was still sued by Ray. Initially represented by Christopher Trainer, an attorney from White Lake, Mich., Ray later dismissed her council and represented herself, suing for a reported $75,000. After years of a lengthy legal battle, the city’s insurance company, which paid for Johnson’s representation, settled for an undisclosed amount. During his testimony, Johnson said that if he could address Ray, he would “apologize for accidentally shooting her son and tell her that it was not intentional, it was accidental and he regrets it.”