Walker shooting 10 years later: Former mayor was driving force behind settlement

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 8, 2013 

In the spring of 2008, the city of Columbus was clearly winning the legal battle against the family of Kenneth Walker, who was shot to death on Dec. 10, 2003, by Muscogee County Sheriff's Deputy David Glisson during a roadside stop.

The Walker family had filed a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit in late 2004 against the city, Sheriff Ralph Johnson and all the officers involved. The case moved to U.S. District Court, and by February 2008 Judge Clay Land had systematically dismissed the city, Sheriff Johnson and more than a dozen officers with the exception of Glisson, ruling that their jobs afforded them immunity.

But then-Mayor Jim Wetherington, in his second year in office, didn't feel like he was winning.

He said he felt caught "between doing something and doing nothing," and that attorneys on both sides weren't budging.

That spring, he decided to do something, saying he "wanted peace of mind for the community."

"It was time I took a stand," he said. "It wasn't good for the people. It wasn't good for the city. It was just lingering. There did not seem to be a settlement in sight."

According to city attorney Clifton Fay, Wetherington instructed the city's legal team -- composed of Fay, assistant city attorney Jaimie DeLoach, and Jim Clark and Thomas Gristina of Page, Scrantom, Sprouse, Tucker & Ford P.C. -- to look for a settlement.

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He also sought out help from attorney and former Columbus Mayor Frank Martin.

Six months later, the legal battle ended in an unorthodox settlement that saw Walker's widow, daughter and the family's attorney split about $500,000 in a rare combination of public and private money.

This is how it happened.

Priming the pump

The Walkers filed their lawsuit against the city a couple of weeks after a November 2004 Muscogee County grand jury refused to indict Glisson for his role in the shooting.

They hired the firm of Gary, Williams, Finney, Lewis, Watson & Sperando P.L. of Stuart, Fla. With that decision, they got Willie Gary, a high-profile litigator who came to Columbus on the one-year anniversary of Walker's death and filed a suit seeking $100 million in compensation and damages.

"This is the day Kenneth Walker was executed, shot and killed by a deputy of this county for absolutely no reason that can be justified," Gary said at the time. "While we cannot bring Kenneth back, we can continue the commitment and effort to make sure this young man's life was not in vain."

Former Mayor Bob Poydasheff, who was in office at the time of the shooting, was aware of the early settlement talks and said he favored a settlement.

He calls the original $100 million figure from attorney Willie Gary, "Bull----."

"The lawyers were priming the pump," Poydasheff said. "… It was absurd. He was demanding things thinking people would rise up. That never happened."

In an August 2006 summary judgment ruling, Judge Land set the tone for where the case was going.

"The Court finds that under the well-established federal law of this circuit and applicable Georgia law, Sheriff Johnson and his deputies, in their official capacities, are entitled to immunity," he wrote. "Therefore, summary judgment is granted in their favor as to Plaintiffs' official capacity claims."

Land didn't stop there.

"The Court further finds that under well-established federal law the City of Columbus/Muscogee County cannot be held liable for the actions of a duly elected Sheriff under the circumstances presented here," he wrote. "Furthermore, under well-established Georgia law, the City of Columbus/Muscogee County is immune from suit for Plaintiffs' state law claims. Therefore, summary judgment is granted in favor of the City of Columbus/Muscogee County as to all of Plaintiffs' claims."

In April 2008, Wetherington was in the odd position of having the legal upper hand but also desiring a resolution. He approached former Mayor Martin, who died in 2012, about helping to work out a deal.

"I just went to his office and told him I needed a big favor," Wetherington said. "I told him what I needed. He said, 'You got it.'"

Martin, a successful criminal defense attorney with deep ties to the community, led the effort to secure private money from the business community for the settlement.

Retired Superior Court Judge John Allen said Martin was the logical choice to help negotiate a legal conclusion.

"He had the ear of the business community," Allen said. "All along, Frank had taken the same position I had, it was not a good shooting and there should be some compensation regardless of what the legal conclusions may have been."

Terms of settlement

The case, which had extensive discovery and more than 20 depositions, would never reach a courtroom, and by 2008 Gary and his colleague Bill Campbell were all but out of the case. Campbell, the former Atlanta mayor, was convicted by a federal jury of tax evasion in 2006.

William Mitchell and Karen Woodward of the Norcross, Ga., firm of Cruser & Mitchell L.L.P. would see the case to its conclusion. Last week, Woodward referred questions about the settlement to Mitchell, who did not return phone messages.

The settlement was nowhere near $100 million.

On Aug. 12, 2008, Columbus Council voted to settle with the Walker family using city reserve funds. About two months later, on Oct. 23, a 20-minute hearing was held in front of Land, and the judge issued an order approving the settlement later in the day.

His approval of the settlement was required because Walker's daughter, Kayla, was the beneficiary of most of the public funds.

"… This court concludes that this settlement is made in good faith and will be in the best interest of said minor K.W. and will advance the minor's interests," Land wrote.

Walker's daughter is referred to as "K.W." throughout the court filings.

At the end, attorneys tried to keep the terms of the settlement sealed, but Land ordered them made public because public funds were involved.

"While the Court is sympathetic to the privacy rights of the minor child, the Court is also mindful that the Federal Courts are public institutions and must operate in the light of day," Land wrote in the September 2008 ruling denying the settlement be sealed.

The city and other defendants, including Glisson, admitted no liability but agreed to the following terms:

• The city of Columbus would purchase a $200,000 annuity for Kayla Walker, who was 3 years old when her father died.

• Private funds, believed to be about $250,000 from anonymous donors, would go to Cheryl Walker and was structured as a "gift" to her, according to federal court documents.

• Cheryl Walker would also receive $60,000 from Harris County's insurance carrier -- Association County Commissioners of Georgia-Interlocal Risk Management Agency -- on behalf of Jim Price, who worked for the Harris County Sheriff's Office and was among the Metro Narcotics Task Force agents involved in the drug investigation that led to Walker's shooting.

• Cheryl Walker was responsible for paying attorneys' fees out of the more than $300,000 she would receive.

Many of the details involved the schedule of payments to Kayla Walker, to which the city and Cheryl Walker agreed and Land approved.

Starting July 15, 2012, and guaranteed for five years and 11 months, Kayla Walker would receive $290 per month from the annuity. Starting on July 15, 2018, about the time she would be entering college, she would receive $15,000 paid twice a year or $30,000 per year, guaranteed for four years. And starting Aug. 15, 2018, she would receive $1,000 per month, guaranteed for five years.

At age 25, she would be guaranteed a lump sum payment of $215,000.

The private money was critical to the deal and was the primary reason Martin was involved in the settlement talks, said Martin's son and law partner John Martin.

"In my opinion he was the only person the donors trusted to get the settlement consecrated and would protect them," John Martin said.

The private donors were anonymous at the time of the settlement and remain so today. Wetherington declined to name them in a recent interview. Fay, the city attorney, said he has an idea who some of them are, but said even he does not know the list.

"It was an elaborate settlement package to benefit the minor child," Fay said.

The aftermath

Ten years after the shooting and five years after the settlement, the case is still a difficult topic for some.

Glisson, through his attorney Richard Hagler, declined comment. Hagler, who represented Glisson throughout the federal suit, also declined to discuss it.

"It is a matter that is in the city's past and that is where it needs to stay," Hagler said.

Johnson, the sheriff who lost his job in a 2008 election to John Darr, also did not want to talk about the shooting or settlement.

Reached by phone at his Tennessee home about an hour south of Nashville, Johnson said he did not see any good that would come of talking about it now.

"I have said everything I know about it about a thousand times," said Johnson, adding, "I still feel for the Walker family and the Glisson family."

Carmen Cavezza, who was Columbus' city manager at the time of the shooting, remembers his gut reaction as he began to learn the details of it: "This is going to be nasty."

With the hindsight of 10 years, he knows he was right.

"In fact," Cavezza said, "it was nasty."

To this day, Cavezza still asks a question about the settlement.

A Muscogee County grand jury never indicted Glisson for his role in Walker's death, and the city clearly had the legal upper hand based on Land's rulings in the federal wrongful death suit.

"He was never officially accused of anything, nor was he found guilty," Cavezza said of Glisson. "Was a settlement in order?

"… There was no finding, no crime per se, no one was at fault, yet we moved to a settlement. Why? I am not sure we will ever come to grips with it. And that may not be bad. This has ruined a lot of lives."

Fay, as city attorney, has taken no public opinion on whether the case, as it stood when the settlement was reached, should have been settled.

Asked if there was a moral imperative to settle it, Fay didn't hesitate.

"That's a better question for the elected officials," he said.

But he did point out, "Not everybody was happy."

Allen, a sitting Superior Court judge at the time of the shooting, walked a line that was tight and tricky. Walker's mother, Emily Walker, was a family friend Allen had known since he was a child, and he attended St. Mary's Road United Methodist Church with the Walker family, including Kenneth.

"My connection was too close to do anything other than to try and walk the family through the process," Allen said.

But Allen said settling the case, especially to benefit Walker's young daughter, was necessary.

"I felt if an adverse ruling came out, and stood, it would not be good for the community," he said. Poydasheff was in his first year as mayor when Walker was shot and killed, and the case was still unresolved when Wetherington defeated him in 2006.

"At the very least, this was a lousy shooting," Poydasheff said of his position all along.

He said he tried "mightily" to settle the suit but couldn't because the city was at loggerheads with the Walkers' attorneys.

There was a moral imperative to settle the suit, Poydasheff said, and he applauded Wetherington for taking the lead.

"I felt that the shooting was wrong," he said. "I did then and I do now. The city had to come to the table and do something that was right."

Five years after pushing for a settlement, Wetherington has no regrets.

"What we did was the right thing to do," Wetherington said. "I stand by that today."

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