A Fort Worth officer who says his shotgun accidentally discharged when he shot a man holding a barbecue fork has been indicted.
A Tarrant County grand jury indicted officer Courtney Johnson on Tuesday on a charge of aggravated assault by a public servant.
Johnson, 33, is accused of injuring Craigory Adams, 55, by recklessly handling his shotgun. Specifically, he is accused in the two-count indictment of taking his gun off safety and sliding the pump action back, then forward as it was pointed toward Adams. The shotgun fired, hitting Adams in the arm.
The officer thought Adams was holding a knife, but it was actually a barbecue fork.
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Jim Lane, Johnson’s defense attorney, said he was shocked that his client was indicted. He said a video of the shooting clearly showed it was an “unintentional discharge.”
“This was an accident. Just pure and simple, it was an accident,” Lane said.
Johnson, who has been with the department since 2013, was booked into the Tarrant County Jail late Tuesday morning and immediately released on $25,000 bail.
Aggravated assault by a public servant is a first-degree felony punishable by five to 99 years or life in prison.
“Keep in mind a grand jury indictment is no evidence of guilt,” Lane said. “This was an accidental discharge. We will prove that at the time of the trial.”
Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald had no comment on the indictment on Tuesday but called a news conference for Wednesday morning. “Video of the incident will be released at that time,” according to a news release.
This was an accident. Just pure and simple, it was an accident.
Jim Lane, defense attorney for officer Courtney Johnson
Rick Van Houten, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, called the shooting a tragic incident.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved — Mr. Adams, his family, as well as officer Johnson and his family,” Van Houten said.
But Van Houten said the incident “highlights the human aspect of our job.”
“Whenever you’re dealing with human beings and mechanical devices like a weapon, you always have the possibility of unintentional issues,” Van Houten said. “I believe that’s what we have here — an unintentional discharge of a weapon in a very dynamic and fluid situation.”
Kenneth Finley, Adams’ cousin and the designated spokesman for the family, said the family was grateful and thankful that an indictment was handed down.
“Maybe this will help somebody else’s son or nephew or father, help them not get shot so we’re thankful,” Finley said. “That gives me more faith in the Fort Worth Police Department. It makes me feel like they are trying to do the right thing.”
In a lawsuit filed against the officer in December, Adams claimed that as a result of the gunshot, movement and use of his right arm has been significantly impaired because of the nerve damage. The lawsuit also says he has been hospitalized for severe depression, lack of sleep and night terrors.
“He’s having problems,” Finley said. “He’s waking up at night. He says he’s constantly seeing the man standing over him, calling him the N-word and shooting him.”
Adams is seeking between $200,000 and $1 million in damages, according to the lawsuit.
Lane strongly disputed that Johnson ever uttered the N-word in the encounter.
“Absolutely not,” Lane said. “If anybody tries to turn this into a racial issue, they are way off-base and they’re trying to create a problem that this city does not have. That is not true.”
Finley accused the department of defaming his cousin’s name when it released information to the public about the June 23 shooting.
Ordered to ‘drop the knife’
According to a news release issued June 23, the day of the shooting, police were dispatched about 3:28 a.m. after a report of a prowler in the 1300 block of New York Avenue. The caller told dispatchers that a man armed with a large knife was pounding at the front door of his residence, the release states.
The officer had responded to a call of a prowler armed with a long knife. The knife, police say, was later determined to be a barbecue fork.
The officer arrived to find a man in the street matching the description of the suspect given by the caller. The officer ordered the man numerous times to “drop the knife,” at which time, according to the release, the suspect dropped to one knee.
“The officer fired one shot wounding the suspect,” the release states.
The weapon was later determined to be an 11-inch barbecue fork with two tines, police said in the release.
Finley said Adams is bipolar and lives with his elderly parents in the block of New York Avenue where the shooting occurred. He said Adams was not having a mental episode.
He said his cousin had gone outside his parent’s home early that morning for a short walk to cool off because the air conditioning was not working. He said his cousin was holding barbecue “tongs” for protection against any loose dogs.
“When the police pulled up, he was in a plain car. Craig didn’t know he was a police officer,” Finley said. “He said it was an unmarked SUV.”
Finley said his cousin was considering running from the stranger “when he turned around and saw the gun.”
“He said the guy told him, ‘Get down n-----’ and he was going down when he was shot,” Finley said.
‘Happened very quickly’
Lane said Johnson was in a marked patrol unit wearing a full police uniform when the encounter occurred.
Lane said the officer went quickly to the scene after hearing a priority-one prowler call.
“It was dark of course,” Lane said. “He was told — the tape all proves — that this was an individual who had a long knife who was trying to break into houses or a particular house. This wasn’t even really in his area but he took the call.”
Lane said when the officer pulled around the corner, he spotted a man matching the call’s description.
“He had a long shiny object,” Lane said. “I don’t know that the officer was trying to figure out what it was. He was told it was a knife. It all happened very quickly.
“He announced that he was police over and over again and told him what to do, which was put the weapon down,” Lane said.
Lane said it is evident from the video that the officer was shocked when his shotgun discharged.
Finley said investigators later told the family that Adams had not been trying to break into any houses, as first reported by police.
“They told us Craig was not charged with anything. He did not do anything wrong,” Finley said.
He said about a week after the shooting, detectives visited the family at his cousin’s home again.
“They came back and told us it was an accident, that the gun accidentally went off,” Finley said. “You can say the gun went off but you killed his character.”
‘Never a physical threat to anybody’
Finley said the department has tried to meet with the family and offer an apology.
If this guy does not have better judgment than what he used, he doesn’t need to be on the force.
Kenneth Finley, cousin of wounded man
“We don’t want to hear that,” Finley said. “Someone needs to be responsible for what happened to Craig. … If this guy does not have better judgment than what he used, he doesn’t need to be on the force.”
Finley said his cousin is a former boxer who’s never had an argument outside a boxing ring.
“He’s never a physical threat to anybody. … His spirit is like a child,” Finley said.
Johnson has been with the department since January 2013. He has no disciplinary history and has received two commendations, according to civil service records.
Lane said Johnson is a decorated combat veteran who served a tour in Iraq. He is a married father with two children, ages 3 and 4 weeks, Lane said.
Johnson was a successful high school baseball coach before he decided to become a police officer, Lane said.
“These things are always a tragic event both for the officer and individuals involved in the shooting,” Lane said. “… We look forward to having a trial and clearing officer Johnson’s name.”
Van Houten said the association “will stand by officer Johnson and support him through this process.”
“We hope that everyone looks at this and sees it for what it is — an unintentional act with no maliciousness of any kind," he said.