Use of informants in woman's death draws questions from Congress

Associated Press

WASHINGTON - House lawmakers, including the powerful Judiciary Committee chairman, said Thursday that the police shooting of a 92-year-old Atlanta woman last fall underscores a trend of misconduct that could require new federal laws, particularly on the use of drug informants.

''We think this is a national problem,'' Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said at a Capitol Hill news conference. ''Tragic as this one woman's death is, the fact of the matter is that this is a matter that is affecting lots of people.''

Conyers said he and about a dozen other House members were seeking a meeting with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on the issue and that his committee would hold hearings on the need for legislation.

On Nov. 21, plainclothes narcotics officers burst into Kathryn Johnston's Atlanta home, using a no-knock warrant they obtained by falsely telling a judge that an informant had confirmed drug dealing there, according to government prosecutors. Johnston was killed during the raid in a hail of nearly 40 police gunshots.

The informant the officers cited - Alex White, who attended Thursday's press conference - worked as a regular street-level ''snitch'' but says he never would have known his name was used in the Johnston warrant had the raid not turned fatal.

''I absolutely had no knowledge at all,'' said the 25-year-old informant, who remains under government protection because his role as an informant became public. ''They just basically used me to cover their backs.''

The Rev. Markel Hutchins of Atlanta, who has acted as a spokesman for Johnston's family, said such abuse of confidential informants and search warrants is increasingly common, particularly in urban neighborhoods, as officers bend the law while under pressure to produce arrests.

He and several lawmakers said that since the Atlanta case became publicized, they have heard similar complaints about the misuse of informants from across the country.

''There's a pattern here,'' said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.

The congressional attention comes as Hutchins and White traveled to Washington Wednesday to meet with lawmakers and Justice Department lawyers. Hutchins and White returned to Atlanta Wednesday night, but Conyers was so compelled by the story that he asked them to return Thursday for a press conference to draw more attention to the case.

According to the plea agreements for two of the officers, police working on a tip from a suspected drug dealer falsely claimed that White had witnessed a drug deal at Johnston's home so they could get a no-knock warrant.

In the subsequent raid, Johnston fired one errant shot at the intruders, hitting no one, and the officers responded with 39 shots, five or six of which struck her.

After searching the home and finding no drugs, the officers tried to cover up the mistake, prosecutors said. One officer handcuffed the dying woman and planted three bags of marijuana in the basement of her house. He then called White and told him to pretend he had bought crack cocaine at the house, court papers say.

Two officers involved in the raid have pleaded guilty to manslaughter, violation of oath and other charges and are awaiting sentencing. A third officer still faces charges.

Attorneys for Johnston's niece have filed a wrongful death claim with the city as a precursor to a lawsuit.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said Wednesday's meeting with Hutchins and lawyers from the department's Civil Rights Division was ''productive.'' But she declined to discuss specifics.

Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, who represents Johnston's district, said the government must do everything it can to prevent similar tragedies.

''You had a woman almost 100 years old ... to die the way she did, it is unreal. It is unthinkable,'' he said.

Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, whose staff met with Hutchins and White, called the shooting a ''terrible situation'' but said it doesn't necessarily reflect on the practices of all officers.

''If you're asking me for a broad indictment of the Atlanta Police Department, I'm not going to give a broad indictment,'' Isakson said. ''But when something like this happens it should cause us to review and make sure it's not systematic.''