Gaynor Found Not Guilty In Henderson Shooting

Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Christopher Gaynor
Christopher Gaynor

A Criminal Court jury from Nashville on Thursday morning ruled former Chattanooga Police Officer Christopher Gaynor not guilty of criminally negligent homicide.

The jury had deliberated about an hour on Wednesday afternoon, then gave the verdict at 9:10 a.m. after another hour of talks.

Gaynor had told the jury Wednesday morning that when he saw he had shot an unarmed man he thought, "My God, what have I done?"

An emotional Gaynor described the traffic stop in May 2003 in which motorist John Eric Henderson was fatally shot in the shoulder.

Gaynor said he thought Henderson was reaching for a weapon, saying he saw something brown that looked like the butt of a gun. He said he walked over after Henderson slumped to the ground and saw that the brown object was a cologne bottle.

It was the second trial for Gaynor on the charge of criminally negligent homicide. The first one ended in a mistrial when the jury could not reach a decision.

Gaynor told the Nashville jury that he stopped Henderson on Newell Street after he was driving a car with a muffler so loud that it caused him to look up.

He told of following Henderson to a house he (Henderson) was remodeling on Newell Street.

The former officer told of Henderson getting out of the car, then heading back to his vehicle despite being told not to.

Gaynor said he yelled at Henderson to "Hold up!" but he said it was as if "he was not even listening to me."

He said he followed Henderson as he went to his car, leaned inside and got the object from the glove compartment.

Gaynor said he placed his hand on his gun and commanded Henderson, "Don't move! Hold it!"

But he said Henderson "started up with a real quick move. I thought he was coming at me with a gun."

He said, "I deholstered my gun and fired as I was moving back." He said he thought he had fired more than once, but was told later it was only a single shot.

He said after Henderson fell to the roadway, he went over and found the cologne bottle. He said, "I grabbed it and pretty much freaked out. I could have sworn it was a gun."

The defense called an expert witness, Michael Foreman, who said Gaynor responded just as he had been trained. He said Gaynor acted appropriately because he was in fear for his life.

The state called a rebuttal witness, Mark Rawlston of the Chattanooga Police Department's Internal Affairs unit, who said Gaynor used excessive force.

Gaynor was fired by then-Police Chief Jimmie Dotson after the incident. He later applied to get his job back, but then dropped the appeal. He now works for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department.

Judge Jon Blackwood heard the case in the courtroom of Judge Steve Bevil, who is ill. Judge Bevil heard the first trial.

Defense attorneys were Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss.

Floyd Kilpatrick, president of the Chattanooga Chapter of Rainbow Push, issued this statement after the verdict:

"The proper purpose of a criminal justice system is to protect society and individuals, including victims and offenders from seriously harmful or dangerous conduct from any source--corporate, governmental, legal, institutional or individual.

"According to information gathered from various sources we estimate that approximately 49 individuals have lost their lives at the hands of either Chattanooga Police, local law enforcement or correction officials while in their custody since 1980. During this 25-year period not one Internal Affairs investigation has concluded that criminal charges were warranted.

"During this period not one criminal indictment or charge has issued from the 11th Judicial District with the exception of the present charge concerning Chattanooga Police Officer Christopher Gaynor. These circumstances have led many in the Chattanooga community to conclude that, over the years, the criminal justice system has turned a deaf ear to community concerns regarding the excessive use of force.

"The fact remains that Chattanooga Police were responsible for the shooting death of John Eric Henderson on Thursday May 29, 2003. However, recent testimony from Police Department officials during the course of this most recent trial would lead us to believe that the officer that shot John Eric Henderson has done nothing wrong, that he properly followed the Departments procedures and in fact, did what was appropriate under the circumstances.

"But when is it appropriate to shoot and kill an unarmed man. The fact that the officer may have been afraid does not provide justification to kill an unarmed man. The Department has an obligation to protect and serve every person in every community in the City of Chattanooga, regardless of race, age, income or appearance. This atmosphere where Public Service Agencies and Departments condone their agents’ and officers’ use of excessive force as a first alternative in conflict resolution should not go unchallenged.

"Unfortunately, when the criminal justice system fails to address the needs of certain segments of our communities, particularly with regards to the use of excessive and deadly force, then the apparent recourse becomes civil litigation against the Agencies and /or municipality(ies) responsible for causing the injuries for which redress is pursued. Under these circumstances it is the taxpayer, and not the offender, that is punished.

"Any award of damages obtained through civil litigation against a municipality or one of its agencies is paid out of public funds, which could otherwise be used to improve the level service delivery to our communities.

"As a community we need to re-examine certain dysfunctional law enforcement practices here in Hamilton County and advocate, through our elected officials in the executive and legislative branches of city government, for positive, constructive change. That is our challenge, and our responsibility as a community."

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