It's a no brainer that the officers who were found to have lied and tampered with evidence in the botched 2009 Eagle raid should be fired, said Christine A. Koehler, a criminal defense attorney based in Gwinnett County.
As past president of the gay Stonewall Bar Association and the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, Koehler said if she practiced in Fulton County, she would be immediately looking through past client records to see if any of the APD officers cited in two scathing investigations on the Eagle raid for lying and tampering with federal evidence testified against any of her clients.
"And I would seek new trials based on the officers' credibility," she said.
Criminal defense attorney questions handling of officers’ punishments in botched Eagle raid
“Honesty goes to the very heart of a police officer’s credibility,” APD Chief George Turner said in a press release on Friday.
“The public must be able to trust its police officers and expects them to tell the truth at all times. Failure to be truthful has serious consequences at the Atlanta Police Department. I hope my actions today serve as a reminder to those men and women on the force that dishonesty simply will not be tolerated,” Turner added.
Mayor Kasim Reed said he was “shocked” with the findings in the investigations and would do what was necessary to ensure something like this never happens again.
“I can’t comment on terminations because by ordinance there is a certain amount of separation between the Atlanta Police Department and myself. But what I do have the ability to do is make my feeling known including to my chief [George Turner] that the success or failure in my administration will be judged by this situation,” he said.
But numerous other officers were found to have tampered with evidence, specifically cell phone records that may have contained text messages as well as photos concerning the raid. The officers did so after a federal court mandated they not delete files from their phones. These officers received either suspensions or written reprimands.
“If any of these officers — liars or evidence tamperers — get a call [to a crime scene] they compromise that scene as soon as they get there because it has already been show their credibility has been compromised,” Koehler explained.
As a criminal defense attorney, Koehler acknowledges that putting innocent people behind bars is a concern for her. But she also said the citizens of Atlanta who rely on the Atlanta Police Department to “protect and serve” face injustices themselves.
“It’s not fair to the victim of these crimes. They need officers who can get a conviction,” she said. “If these reports indicated an officer destroyed evidence after being told by a federal court not to, how do we know they haven’t done it in the past or won’t do it in the future?
“As a criminal defense attorney I welcome the opportunity to expose these officers as the liars and evidence tamperers that they are. I will encourage other criminal defense lawyers to expose the dishonest acts of these officers in all future proceedings that involve these officers in any capacity,” she said.
“Credibility is never collateral when it comes to people’s freedoms.”
Not just a gay issue
Robby Kelley, co-owner of the Eagle, also expressed dissatisfaction that not more officers were not fired. He was also troubled four officers who were investigated for tampering with evidence received only written reprimands.
“The people getting fired — that was good news. We thought the ball was rolling, but then it just stopped,” he said. “For officers to get out of destroying federal evidence … you’re a crooked cop and shouldn’t be a cop anymore,” Kelley said.
“This is not good for the citizens of Atlanta and not what Richard [Ramey, who owns the Eagle with Kelley] were hoping for.”
Koehler said it’s important to point out that the investigations into the Eagle raid are not just a gay issue.
“This is not an issue that affects only the gay community. It’s a systemic problem that we [Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers] keep in check,” she said.
And what the APD officers did is worse than what Martha Stewart did, Koehler pointed out. Stewart spent five months in a federal prison for lying to investigators about a stock sale.
“She lied, but she didn’t tamper with federal evidence,” she said.
Can officers in the Eagle raid be prosecuted? Possibly, Koehler said.
Tampering with federal evidence and perhaps obstruction of justice are certainly actions that are illegal. It would be up the district attorney to decide that, she explained.
The APD’s internal affairs investigation could not be used against an officer in a trial because the officer was compelled to speak. However, the independent investigation by Greenberg Traurig that was hired by the city of Atlanta could serve as a road map for a prosecutor, she said.
Koehler did liken the Eagle raid as perhaps Atlanta’s Stonewall moment. But instead of rioting, the patrons of the bar the night it was raided in 2009 sought justice from the city itself.
“Instead we relied on the city administration to hand out justice and so far it has been disappointing and lacking,” she said.
“It is unconscionable to me that the city of Atlanta Police Department would allow these officers, who themselves ran afoul of the law, to compromise future convictions,” she said.
The Atlanta Police LGBT Advisory group meets Wednesday, July 13, at 7 p.m. at Saint Mark United Methodist Church, 781 Peachtree St., Atlanta, GA 30308. Board members are expected to discuss the recent investigations into the Eagle raid.