A law firm working for the widow of Julian E. Lewis, who was shot to death by then-Georgia State Patrol trooper Jacob Gordon Thompson along a rural road in Screven County on Aug. 7, 2020, announced Thursday that she has obtained a record $4.8 million settlement from the state of Georgia, averting an actual lawsuit.
Thompson, who was fired by the State Patrol soon after the incident, had reported that he forced Lewis, 60, off the road using a PIT maneuver after Lewis failed to stop when the trooper attempted to pull him over for a broken taillight. The taillight “was not, in fact, broken,” Hall & Lampros, the Atlanta-based civil rights and personal injury law firm retained by Betty Lewis, stated in its media release announcing the settlement.
“The evidence that we reviewed didn’t indicate that it was broken, and we didn’t see any evidence that the trooper had probable cause to pull Mr. Lewis over,” attorney Andrew Lampros said in a phone interview.
He and his firm assert – reportedly based on information from state records dating back to 1990 obtained from the Georgia Department of Administrative Services under an open records request – that the $4.8 million is the largest tort settlement by the state in Georgia history. The Statesboro Herald has not independently confirmed this.
A $15 million notice
It is “pre-litigation” settlement because Mrs. Lewis’ attorneys never formally filed a lawsuit.
They did issue an “ante litem” notice, or advance notice of a claim, to the state as required for a tort action such as a wrongful death suit, on Aug. 3, 2021, seeking $15 million for the loss on behalf of Betty Lewis individually and as administrator of her deceased husband’s estate.
The notice also stated that a claim would be made that Julian Lewis was deprived of his constitutional rights “under color of law.” It was delivered to the Georgia Department of Public Safety, of which the State Patrol is part, as well as to Attorney General Chris Carr and to the state’s risk management chief.
“Our hearts grieve for Betty Lewis, who lost her Golden Years with her husband because of unwarranted and unnecessary deadly force during what should have been a routine traffic stop,” Lampros stated in Thursday’s announcement. “The events of that August night should never have happened. Shooting an unarmed man without cause is unconscionable, and violates the freedom that the United States Constitution guarantees all individuals. We were prepared to sue the trooper, the department and its leadership asserting both Constitutional claims as well as state law tort claims.”
Went to mediation
But instead of proceeding to court, the state, represented by the Attorney General’s Office, and Betty Lewis’ attorneys, including Lampros, who is a co-founder and partner in the firm, and Akil K. Secret, who had recently joined Hall & Lampros as an “of counsel” affiliated attorney, and Bob Isaacson of Savannah, agreed to mediation. The settlement was mediated by Gino Brogdon Sr., a professional mediator and arbitrator who previously served almost 10 years as a trial judge in the Superior and State Courts of Fulton County.
According to members of Julian Lewis’ family and their attorneys, Lewis, who was Black, was driving to a store to buy a soda for his wife on his way home from work the night of the pursuit and fatal shooting. Thompson, who is white and in his late 20s, activated his blue lights to indicate Lewis should pull over, but he did not stop.
The family’s attorneys have asserted that he was attempting to drive from the tree-lined, dirt road to a less isolated area. After using his patrol car in the PIT maneuver, or precision immobilization technique, to strike Lewis’ Nissan Sentra and force it from the road, Thompson drew his handgun and fired a single bullet, which struck Lewis in the forehead, killing him.
Hall & Lampros’ release notes Georgia Bureau of Investigation testimony that less than two seconds passed from the time Thompson opened the door of the patrol car until he fired the shot.
In an incident report, Thompson wrote that he heard the engine of Lewis’ vehicle “revving at a high rate of speed,” making him fear for his life and prompting him to shoot. But a GBI agent also testified, in a 2020 hearing in what was originally a criminal case against the fired trooper, that the crash had caused Lewis’ battery cable to disengage, disabling his car’s engine.
One week after Lewis’ death, the GBI arrested Thompson on charges of felony murder and aggravated assault. But a majority of a Screven County grand jury in June 2021 declined to indict Thompson, “no billing” the charges.
District Attorney Daphne Totten of the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit at that time said she would consider whether to present the evidence to another grand jury, but no effort to restart a state criminal case against Thompson has been announced. Members of Lewis’ family viewed dashcam video from Thompson’s patrol car with Totten and members of her staff last year, but the video has not been released to the public.
A separate law firm, Davis Bozeman Johnson Law, which includes Statesboro-based attorney Francys Johnson, retained by Julian Lewis’ son, Brook Bacon, has represented the family in demanding further prosecution.
Phoned Thursday, Johnson said he welcomes the civil settlement, in which he said Bacon would also share as part of the estate, but that they continue to seek further measures of accountability for Thompson and the state.
“This was always a three-pronged approach to accountability,” Johnson said. “The first was to make sure that he could not inflict harm and that the State Patrol reformed itself, and he was summarily fired, and I understand the State Patrol has taken internal actions. That’s the first prong.”
The second prong, he said, was criminal accountability, for which the “case still sits with the district attorney of the Ogeechee Circuit, Daphne Totten, and the citizens should see the evidence, the video, and why the state of Georgia felt compelled to pay $4.8 million to redress this wrong.”
Last September the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia announced the launch of a federal investigation involving the FBI, Johnson also noted.
The third prong, he said, was civil liability.
“And today’s release of this historic settlement is a testimony that what happened on that dusty road on August the 7th, 2020 was wrong,” Johnson said.