ATLANTA – Two police officers pleaded guilty Thursday to manslaughter and other charges in the shooting death of a 92-year-old woman during a botched drug raid at her home last fall.
Officer J.R. Smith, who also agreed to resign from the police department, told a state judge that he regretted what had happened.
"I'm sorry," the 35-year-old said, his voice barely audible. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter, violation of oath, criminal solicitation, making false statements and perjury, which was based on untrue claims in a no-knock warrant obtained to enter Kathryn Johnston's home on Nov. 21.
Former Officer Gregg Junnier, 40, who retired from the Atlanta police in January, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, violation of oath, criminal solicitation and making false statements under the plea deal. Both men are expected to face more than 10 years in prison.
In a hearing later in federal court, both pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to violate a person's civil rights, resulting in death. Their state and federal sentences would run concurrently, and both men agreed to help investigators with their probe into the activities of Atlanta narcotics officers.
The charges followed a Nov. 21 "no-knock" drug raid on Johnston's home. An informant had described buying drugs from a dealer there, police said. When the officers burst in without warning, Johnston fired at them, and they fired back, killing her.
Fulton County prosecutor Peter Johnson said that the officers involved in Johnston's death fired 39 shots, striking her five or six times, including a fatal blow to the chest.
Johnston fired only once through her door and didn't hit any of the officers, he said. That means officers who were wounded likely were hit by their own colleagues, he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Yonette Sam-Buchanan said Thursday that although the officers found no drugs in Johnston's home, Smith planted three bags of marijuana in the home as part of a cover story officers concoted.
A third officer, Arthur Tesler, who is on administrative leave, was charged with violation of oath by a public officer, making false statements and false imprisonment under color of legal process. His attorney, William McKenney, said Tesler expects to go to trial.
Tesler, 40, is "very relieved" not to face murder charges, McKenney said, "but we're concerned about the three charges."
Both Smith and Junnier could have faced up to life in prison had they been convicted of murder. The murder charge was reduced to manslaughter as part of their pleas, and prosecutors agreed not to pursue the burglary and assault charges. Now, Junnier will face 10 years and one month and Smith 12 years and seven months. No sentencing date was immediately set.
The case raised serious questions about no-knock warrants and whether the officers followed proper procedures.
Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington asked the FBI to lead a multi-agency probe. He also announced policy changes to require the department to drug-test its nearly 1,800 officers and require top supervisors to sign off on narcotics operations and no-knock warrants.
To get the warrant, officers told a magistrate judge that an undercover informant had told them Johnston's home had surveillance cameras monitored carefully by a drug dealer named Sam.
After the shooting, a man claiming to be the informant told a television station that he had never purchased drugs there, leading Pennington to admit he was uncertain whether the suspected drug dealer actually existed.
Pennington said Thursday that the entire episode "has been a very painful five months for the police department."
The Rev. Markel Hutchins, a civil rights activist who serves as a spokesman for Johnston's family, said the family was satisfied with Thursday's developments.
"They have never sought vengeance. They have only sought justice," he said.