Pastor’s Widow Awarded $832,000.00 in Fees and Expenses
On June 13, 2014, U. S. District Court Judge Richard W. Story awarded Abigail Marilyn Ayers, the widow of Jonathan Paul Ayers, attorneys fees and expenses in the amount of $832,200.19. This award comes at the conclusion of a jury trial in which the jury previously awarded Mrs. Ayers $2,325,000.00. Following the entry of the jury’s verdict, Judge Story reduced the jury’s lost wage award in order to reduce it to its present cash value. This reduction was over Mrs. Ayers’ objections and may be the subject of an appeal. Having prevailed in the wrongful death case against the Drug Task Force Officer involved, Billy Shane Harrison, Mrs. Ayers had sought the award of attorneys’ fees and expenses under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Judge Story’s fee award is believed to be the largest award ever rendered in the Gainesville, Georgia Division for a successful civil rights claimant. Lead counsel for Mrs. Ayers was Richard W. Hendrix of the Atlanta firm Finch McCranie LLP.
In addition to entering judgment for the Plaintiff, Judge Story also ordered the Defendant to post a Supersedeas Bond in the amount of $2.9 million in order to stay the execution of the judgment pending appeal. The Court awarded total judgment to Mrs. Ayers in the amount of $2,479,256.19. It is anticipated that the central issue on appeal will be whether the Trial Court properly denied Officer Harrison’s claims for qualified immunity. That defense has been previously rejected by Judge Story and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The jury also rejected Harrison’s claims of self-defense.
It is noteworthy that following the jury’s verdict in this case, the same Drug Task Force has become embroiled in yet another case involving allegations of the use of excessive force. An informant of a the same Drug Task Force involved in the wrongful death of Jonathan Ayers is a central player in the ongoing tragedy involving numerous media reports indicating that 19 month old toddler Vounkham Phonesavanh was tragically burned by a flash grenade that had been tossed into his crib while sleeping during a “no knock” raid conducted by the Habersham County Sheriff’s Office. The Habersham County Sheriff’s Office is a member of the Mountain Judicial Circuit Task Force, the same drug task force which employed Billy
Shane Harrison when Reverend Ayers was shot and killed in Toccoa, Georgia. According to media reports, an informant of the same Task Force provided the information which allegedly justified the “no knock” drug raid which culminated in the use of flash grenade seriously injuring the innocent toddler.
Both the Ayers case, and the case involving the use of the flash grenade involve significant issues of whether excessive force is being used in the fight against illegal drugs. Both cases starkly illustrate the dangers of using excessive and unreasonable force when innocent civilians become caught up in the investigations. In the Ayers case, a jury in Gainesville agreed that Reverend Ayers’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable force was violated when he was shot and killed by Billy Shane Harrison at a time when the preacher was unarmed and at a place where he had a right to be.