Detroit police framed accused cop killer, lawsuit says

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit police officers killed a man and planted a gun on his body to cover up the wrongful death, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The lawsuit filed by the estate of James Edward Ray Jr., 46, describes a conspiracy and cover-up at the highest levels of the Detroit Police Department in the minutes, days and weeks after a high-profile incident that left Ray dead and a Detroit police officer mortally wounded.

James Edward Ray

The Ray estate sued the city and two unidentified officers, alleging Ray's constitutional rights were violated and that police officials planted evidence, falsified documents and lied under oath. The lawsuit, filed amid a nationwide debate about the use of deadly force by police personnel, seeks more than $75,000 in damages.

The lawsuit also comes 17 years after the city reached consent judgments with the U.S. Justice Department to reform jail conditions and how the police department handled the use of force, arrests and witness detention. The federal oversight cost more than $50 million and lasted until 2016.

"The Detroit Police Department has continuously failed to come into compliance with the terms of the consent judgments and continues to engage in a pattern and practice of conduct by DPD employees that deprives people of rights, privileges and immunities secured and protected by the Constitution of the United States," Ray estate attorney David Robinson wrote in the lawsuit.

A Detroit Police spokeswoman declined comment Tuesday.

The accusation in the lawsuit runs counter to a consensus among Detroit stakeholders that the long, painful process of reforms imposed on the Police Department by the U.S. Justice Department has improved police conduct and interactions with residents. Among those in this consensus is former Mayor Dennis Archer, who asked for the federal government to intervene in the early 2000s.

Since 2015, Detroit officers have killed nine people, according to city police data, less than a quarter of the death toll from two decades ago.

The lawsuit stems from a deadly April 30, 2017 incident in Detroit.

That night, Officer Waldis "Jay" Johnson and his partner knocked on the door of the Oakman Apartments in the 10000 block of Joy Road on the city’s west side while responding to a domestic violence call.

Officer Johnson (top left) and his family

According to the department, Ray answered the knock by shooting Johnson in the head. Johnson, 48, died May 31, more than three years after the shooting.

Johnson’s partner, Officer Darren Weathers, fired back, killing Ray, who was not involved in the original domestic violence call, according to investigators.

After the shooting, Police Chief James Craig said surveillance video at the Oakman Apartments showed Ray loading a.380-caliber semiautomatic pistol as he walked from his apartment to the door. Ray appeared to be walking with an unsteady gait, Craig said.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday describes a different scenario.

Ray was unarmed and did not pose a threat to the officers, Robinson wrote in the lawsuit.

"This was a wrongful death," the lawyer wrote. "At least one of the named defendants ... brought a weapon to the scene and tampered with the scene to make it appear as if James Edward Ray Jr. had a gun during this incident in order to justify the hitting and shooting..."

Police investigators could not find independent witnesses to the shooting and failed to find fingerprints on the weapon, according to the lawsuit.

The department also failed to conduct an internal affairs investigation or probe the use of force and in-custody death, the lawyer said.

Twitter: @robertsnellnews