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'The fight is not over'

Nicholas Thomas' family pledges to continue push for justice with civil lawsuit

On the afternoon of July 9, Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds invited a small group of reporters to his Marietta office to share more details about the fatal shooting of Nicholas Thomas — and inform them he would not press charges against the involved officer.

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For the first time, Reynolds played back surveillance footage of the 23-year-old tire shop employee driving a silver Maserati sports car backward and forward as he tried to flee from the authorities attempting to arrest him for failing to pay $170 in probation fees. Not captured on camera was Smyrna Police Department Sgt. Kenneth Owens shooting at least six bullets at the car, piercing the side of the vehicle and striking Thomas' back.

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"The loss of life is unfortunate, and I sincerely sympathize with Mr. Thomas' survivors," said Reynolds, who explained in a statement that he acted on a civil grand jury's recommendation. "But when he drove the vehicle toward officers in the manner he did, the officer who fired the shots was justified under the law to use lethal force."

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The following day on the other side of metro Atlanta, the Thomas family fiercely rebutted Reynolds at their own press conference. Inside a law office in unincorporated DeKalb County, civil rights attorney Mawuli "Mel" Davis said the Thomas family was "humiliated" by Reynolds, who did not let them see any evidence before the grand jury hearing took place. Left with no recourse against Owens, the Thomas family now plans to file a civil lawsuit against the officer and his department over the alleged wrongful death.

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"This is a shame — it's pitiful," said Felicia Thomas, Nicholas' mother. Despite her loss, she said she wasn't surprised after the lack of transparency leading up to Reynolds' latest decision. "This is America," she continued.

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Davis further questioned the narrative that authorities have presented to the public about the Thomas probe. Immediately after the shooting, Smyrna police said, Owens fired his weapon because Thomas was speeding in a "reckless manner" that threatened his life. However, a medical examiner's autopsy ruled a bullet entered Thomas' back, striking his lungs and aorta.

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But Reynolds last week told reporters that Owens had actually shot at Thomas to protect another officer. In addition, Davis alleges that local authorities misinformed the public in saying they needed to arrest Thomas for felony probation violation, when in fact it was a misdemeanor probation violation.

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"It undermines the confidence of the public," Davis said.

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Owens, who's worked for Smyrna Police for the past 14 years, had two documented incidents of domestic violence against his wife in the late '90s. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in one incident and later resigned from his previous position with the Cobb County Police Department. On May 30, Smyrna Police allowed Owens to return to work in an administrative capacity prior to the conclusion of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe in mid-June.

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T.J. Ward, a private investigator who this year helped find new evidence that reopened a police shooting case in Union City, has started working for the Thomas family. He said he has "a lot of reservations about what was presented to the grand jury," including the lack of key witnesses and evidence. His files about Thomas' death will soon be released now that the case is closed.

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Nicholas' brother, Tristan Thomas, said the American justice system has ultimately failed his family. State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who called the Cobb proceedings a "setup job," said he would make grand jury reform his top priority in the months leading up to the 2016 legislative session. Such legislation has long odds of passing. But Fort said he would be undeterred in pushing for change on behalf of the Thomas family and others affected by a process that lacks transparency.

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"There are a lot of people who didn't think that flag in Charleston would be coming down," Fort said regarding the likelihood of grand jury reform passing in a Republican-controlled statehouse.

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Marcus Coleman, founder of local advocacy group Save OurSelves, said police academy cadets must be given more stringent psychiatric evaluations before their hiring and officers retrained moving forward. Yet those reforms will likely take longer than the Thomas family would like to see happen. For Nicholas' parents, the current inaction won't prevent Owens from continuing his duties as a cop, leaving a legal fight as the only road forward to find justice for their son.

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"The fight is not over," Davis said. "It's just going to another level."



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