Glynn County commissioners will hear a plea to take action Thursday from the mother of Caroline Small, the woman who was shot in June 2010 by two Glynn County police officers following a 20-minute low-speed pursuit. Small, who suffered multiple gunshot wounds, later died.
Karen McGehee will ask the commission to support a grassroots movement that is calling on Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to order a new investigation into the shooting.
The U.S. District Court in Brunswick ruled in 2014 the shooting did not violate Small’s constitutional rights, a decision that was upheld in March by the 11th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. The decisions came in response to a civil lawsuit Small’s family filed against the county and the two police officers who shot Small.
The group Justice for Caroline Small says new allegations uncovered recently warrant a second look at the incident. The group is calling on the governor to direct the state attorney general to open an independent investigation into the shooting by officers Robert C. Sasser and Todd Simpson.
McGehee and other members of Justice for Caroline Small will address commissioners at the meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. at the old county courthouse.
McGehee has rarely spoken publicly in the five years since her daughter’s death but said Tuesday she feels compelled to speak out now.
“I’m willing to talk to them, just because this is for Caroline,” said McGehee, a soft-spoken, retired first-grade teacher from Tallahassee, Fla. “I’m just going to come across as a mother and tell them how this has affected me. I’m going to keep it pretty simple. I don’t think words can describe what it’s like to lose a child.”
Four members of Justice for Caroline Small visited Glynn County last week to talk with the commission in advance of Thursday’s meeting. Frank Walper, a retired teacher and long-time friend of McGehee, was joined by attorney Bob Apgar, and retired law enforcement officers Frank McDaniel and his brother, Wayne McDaniel.
The four met with commissioners Dale Provenzano, Allen Booker and Bill Brunson in one meeting, and with commissioners Mark Stambaugh and Bob Coleman in another meeting.
“Our position is that the commission really does have an important role in this,” said Walper, who has known McGehee since her daughter was a baby. “It happened five years ago, but there’s a lot of stuff that wasn’t known five years ago. There’s a lot of new information.”
The group’s visit was prompted in part by a letter the commission has considered authorizing in response to recent media requests about the Caroline Small shooting. The two-page letter states the commission will let the incident rest with the U.S. District Court rulings.
The letter was first placed on the commission agenda at the Dec. 3 meeting, but was deferred to give commissioners an opportunity to review it.
“In closing, the board views the loss of any human life, including that of Ms. Small, as a tragic event,” the draft letter states in the closing paragraph. “Again, however, all four members of the federal judiciary who have reviewed this case have reached the same conclusion – the level of force was justified under the U.S. Constitution. All available evidence was presented during that litigation, and no compelling reason has been offered for questioning the wisdom of the decision reached in that litigation.”
Provezano said consideration of the letter will most likely be pulled from Thursday’s agenda.
“That letter is going to be pulled and filed away,” he said. “That’s what should have happened to begin with.”
Provenzano added the commission is not likely to lend support to the Justice for Caroline Small effort.
However, the group can likely count on the support of at least one commissioner. Bob Coleman was serving his first term on the commission when the incident occurred.
“I’m just looking for the truth,” Coleman said Tuesday. “I was here when that happened. In my mind from what I saw (on video) at that time, there was no question in mind that justice would be done — and when it wasn’t, I was very, very surprised.”
Small, 35, was parked at the Glynn Place Mall on June 18, 2010, when an officer approached to question her about suspected drug use. A mother of two who had struggled with drug addiction, Small then led police on a slow 4-mile chase from Glynn Place Mall to the Waverly Pines subdivision, running off the road, forcing other cars of the road, bumping patrol cars and driving onto lawns.
Police eventually hemmed her car in with a patrol car in front and another on her car’s passenger side. A utility pole blocked her car to the rear.
Her tires flattened, Small continued to move the Buick Century forward and backward between the utility pole and patrol car. Police said they believed she still could escape.
One officer stated Small was using the car like a weapon, and officer Simpson is heard on patrol car video warning Small that he will shoot if she continues to move the car.
Sasser and Simpson fired a total of eight times into the windshield.
Then Acting District Attorney David Perry said shortly after the shooting that he planned to seek an indictment the officers. However, Perry was replaced later that year by current DA Jackie Johnson.
In August 2011, Johnson presented the case to a Glynn County grand jury, which voted not to indict the officers. Grand juries return a no bill when they feel the evidence in a case is insufficient to indict.
Last year, the U.S. District Court’s Southern District of Georgia ruled the officer’s actions were unfortunate but justified.
“Based on the record evidence,” Judge Lisa Godbey Wood wrote, “two conclusions are clear: Was her death necessary? No. Was it unconstitutional? No.”
Recent allegations have been raised that evidence was withheld from the grand jury, and that attorneys at the local DA’s office were fired for attempting to further the investigation.
“I’m not trying to sound like a whistle blower here, but I want justice just as bad as the mother does,” Coleman said. “I’m perturbed with the way this thing was handled.”