WRAL Investigates

Veteran's call for help leads to three years in Cumberland jail

Posted July 23, 2020 6:45 p.m. EDT
Updated July 23, 2020 6:49 p.m. EDT

— Three-and-a-half years ago, an Army sergeant in Fayetteville was contemplating suicide. He called for help, but instead of counseling, he ended up in jail for three years.

Gerard Atkinson is now suing Fayetteville, Police Chief Gina Hawkins, six police officers, two public defenders and the state Office of Indigent Defense, alleging false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, unlawful seizure, legal negligence and other offenses.

Atkinson, a star player on a championship-winning Fayetteville State University football team who later served five years in the Army, said that, after calling a suicide hotline, he wasn't sure if and when anyone was going to show up at his house. But details of his call were transferred to 911, which dispatched three Fayetteville police officers.

Atkinson said he didn't want to seem like a threat whenever help arrived, so he put his loaded gun down on an entertainment center. The gun then fired, however, and a bullet went through a window.

According to his lawsuit, the officers were in the area, but none was on Atkinson's property. Two were outside next door, and the third was two houses down, where the officers had parked. Atkinson said he went outside after the gun fired to make sure no one was hurt, and when he didn't see anyone, he went back inside and fell asleep.

"I was awoke by them knocking on the door," he said. "As soon as I opened the door, it's something like out of a movie – a barrage of weapons pointed directly at you."

He was arrested and charged with three felony counts of attempted first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer.

The charges were filed despite one officer's report stating he didn't believe he was shot at. The lawsuit also states that video from officers' body-worn cameras shows the bullet traveled through closed drapes, closed blinds and a closed screen.

"I couldn't put it together why you're charging me with attempted murder with a deadly weapon. I couldn't put it together. It was like a 'Twilight Zone' episode," Atkinson said.

Over the next three years, with two public defenders and at least 19 continuances in his case, Atkinson sat in jail.

"I wouldn't even want my enemy to be in a place like that," he said. "It was really hell, especially when you know you don't belong there and you're innocent.

"I cried at times," he added. "Every waking moment, I asked myself, 'Why?'"

Atkinson finally got a new public defender who determined the charges didn't match the facts, and Atkinson pleaded guilty to two minor crimes that would have cost him a $50 fine and no more than a couple of days in jail.

"He pleaded to get out because he had been in there so long," said attorney Michael Porter, who's representing Atkinson in the federal lawsuit and in a state lawsuit against the public defenders.

"The Fayetteville Police Department and the city of Fayetteville did everything they could, and instead of providing help to him, they destroyed his name, and now they don't want to take responsibility," Porter said. "In reality, Black lives really don't matter in Fayetteville because they're not changing anything."

Fayetteville officials recently filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the department and its officers have government immunity. They also claim much of Atkinson's complaint deals with the court system, not the officers' actions. The motion also makes note that Atkinson did commit a crime because he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors.

Settlement talks to dispose of the lawsuit didn't get far. Atkinson wanted $7.6 million, or $300 for every hour he said he wrongfully spent in prison. Meanwhile, the city offered him $14,000, claiming it was responsible for only the first two hours of incarceration because, after his first court appearance, he was the responsibility of the state court system.

Atkinson said that lawsuit is about more than just money and an apology.

"I would just like the opportunity to get my life back together," he said. "It's about righting a wrong, It's about shedding the light on the injustices that are happening here in Fayetteville."

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