ATLANTA — A Channel 2 Action News and Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation into the 2011 shooting death of an unarmed teenager by a Union City police officer has revealed new details about the DNA evidence in the case.
Ariston Waiters died from two gunshot wounds to his back after running when police arrived to break up a fight between teenagers. Prosecutors say there was no indication Waiters had committed a crime.
Now a leading national expert on forensic DNA has reviewed two lab reports from the case, and says previous statements which claimed the teen's DNA was on the officer's gun, are wrong.
"If you want to really stretch it, I think 1 in 25 people might be included, and when you think about that, it's 400,000 Georgians," said Dr. Greg Hampikian, "So it's not an identification; it shouldn't be misconstrued as an identification."
Fulton County Attorney Paul Howard reopened his case against Union City Police Officer Luther Lewis nearly two weeks ago after answering questions from Channel 2 and the AJC.
Howard is now considering taking the case to another grand jury; a prior one opted not
to indict Lewis on murder and other charges in May 2012. Officer Luther Lewis claimed Waiters tried to grab his gun while the teen was already lying facedown on the ground.
So investigators had the gun tested for Waiters' DNA. "There's no identification except for
Officer Lewis," says Hampikian, "The other minor mixture has several contributors; it looks like there's at least three contributors on that gun."
But back in 2012, Lewis' defense attorney was telling a different story. "There was DNA on the gun that would have come from the skin cells from Mr. Waiters, which proves he had his hand on the gun," Dixon told Channel 2.
Just two weeks ago, Union City Assistant Police Chief Lee Brown said the same thing, "Ariston's DNA was on the gun." Hampikian and a second DNA expert who also reviewed the records say it just isn't so.
"That's, at the very least, a great misunderstanding of what the DNA says," says Hampikian. "As a scientist I can tell you that there's no identification of Mr. Waiters; we don't know if he touched this gun."
The first lab tests and corresponding report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said there was "no conclusive determination" when it came to Waiters' DNA. A second report from a private lab said Waiters "could not be excluded" from one sample and could be a "possible minor contributor" to another.
"There's a complex mixture and possibly the victim is included, but so are 400,000 people in Georgia. It's really meaningless," said Hampikian. He added that even if the teen's DNA was on the gun, it wouldn't necessarily prove he grabbed for it.
"The officer is trying to put cuffs on, if he's touching like that he's going to be rubbing. That kind of transfer, the officer could've picked up DNA from Mr. Waiters quite easily and transferred it to his weapon, as well," said Hampikian.
But, likewise, Hampikian says just because Waiters' DNA isn't conclusively on the gun, doesn't prove there wasn't a struggle for it; sometimes DNA just doesn't transfer. "What our job is to do is to make sure we get at the truth," says Howard, who did not offer a time frame for his decision about whether a new grand jury will hear the case.
His investigators have spent the past week tracking down the same officers Channel 2 and the AJC interviewed, including the first supervisor on the scene after the shooting who says
he never believed it was justified.
Investigators are also interested in several prior incidents which were left out of Lewis'
disciplinary file, including fellow officers raising concerns about his judgement during incidents and possible PTSD from his prior military service.