A lawsuit implicating the mayor in a deadly 2008 police shooting is just one of several high-profile cases pending in federal court against local governments.
The complaint, filed in 2009 by Deborah Ray, stems from the death of her 21-year-old son, Justin Smith, at the hands of two Columbus police officers Jan. 31, 2008.
Her son had skipped out on his bail in 2005, a year before Robert Smith became mayor, leaving the bail bonding company of Susie Summerville, Smith”s former employee, holding the bill.
Smith declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit except to say he had sold the company to Summerville before 2005 and had no knowledge of the bond issue prior to the shooting.
A few days before the shooting, two women accused Justin Smith of committing burglaries in their neighborhood, which prompted a search of his mother”s house, according to a letter from Police Chief Joseph St. John to Mississippi Insurance Department Commissioner Mike Chaney.
Seven officers went to her house without a search warrant and asked to search for her son, the complaint says.
Ray was “very uncooperative” and did not permit the search, leading Lt. Carl Kemp, then commander of criminal investigations, to call the mayor and former city council member for help, St. John said in his letter.
Once at the house, Smith “demanded entry” to search for her son and was refused, according to the complaint.
Smith then allegedly told her “he would not be responsible for what happened to her if she did not allow the police officers to search her home,” the complaint continues.
Ray allowed the unfruitful search because she feared for her and her children”s safety, the document adds.
The following morning, St. John verbally reprimanded Kemp for calling the mayor to the scene, which he called “totally improper.”
“It is the job of the Columbus Police Department to apprehend criminals and not the Mayor”s Office,” he said in the letter. “This protocol/procedure has been rectified.”
St. John declined to comment on the lawsuit except to say that his letter was accurate and that the officers involved did not have “sinister” motives.
On Jan. 31, 2009, Assistant Chief Joe Johnson and officer Rick Jones responded to a report of a burglary in progress on the 700 block of 15h Street North and entered the residence of Justin Smith, the complaint states.
Johnson reportedly fired the fatal shot, although both officers were placed on administrative leave.
“At no time during the killing did defendants have a justifiable reason to use the deadly force employed,” the document says.
Ray also states in the complaint that the city failed to properly train its officers.
Johnson declined to comment on pending litigation and Jones could not be reached.
Ray is seeking at least $75,000 from the city, the mayor, Johnson and Jones for violating her son”s constitutional rights, according to the complaint.
The case is currently set for trial before U.S. District Judge Sharon Aycock at 9:40 a.m. April 25, 2011 in the federal courthouse at Aberdeen.
See Monday”s edition of The Dispatch for a rundown of other lawsuits pending against local governments.