Grand jury declines to indict Harnett County deputy in shooting
A Harnett County grand jury has declined to bring criminal charges against a sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed an unarmed man in November.
The grand jury met in secret Monday to hear from eyewitnesses and law enforcement officials about the death of John Livingston, a 33-year-old Anderson Creek man. Deputy Nicholas Kehagias shot Livingston three times after the men tussled in the middle of the night Nov. 15.
Kehagias had gone to Livingston’s home while investigating an earlier disturbance call. No one in the home was involved with that disturbance; the man Kehagias sought was not there.
Livingston told Kehagias he could not search his home unless he had a warrant. Kehagias had no warrant.
Officers rarely face charges when they kill a civilian in the line of duty. Law enforcement receives broad discretion when using lethal force to protect themselves and others.
Kehagias, 26, has been on the force for 2 1/2 years. Since the shooting, he has been on paid administrative leave. Sheriff Wayne Coats said last week that if Kehagias were not charged, he would be welcome to return to the force.
Earlier on Monday, Kehagias’ attorney, Robert Reives of Sanford, asked that his client be allowed to testify to the grand jury. Superior Court Judge Thomas Lock turned him down.
“Your honor, there are a total of five people that can recount what happened that night, and there’s only one person who can recount it from beginning to end,” Reives said. He told the judge he thought Kehagias’ testimony would help determine the truth.
After the grand jury declined to indict Kehagias, Reives said: “I’m happy for Nick and his family that this portion is over. He’s a really good person who got put in a really difficult situation.”
Reives added: “I know he is sorry for how things are.”
The grand jury’s decision came after months of unease in Harnett County. Livingston’s friends and family have protested in front of the courthouse, telling anyone who would listen that Kehagias killed Livingston for no reason.
They congregated on Facebook, sharing their worries and speculation. As the weeks and months passed without an arrest, they feared his death would go unanswered. They were skeptical that a grand jury would indict.
“I don’t know how to go on,” Kathy Livingston, John Livingston’s mother, said Monday after learning of the grand jury’s decision. “That’s a failure to my son. There is no justice.”
Bradley Timmerman, who was at John Livingston’s home and witnessed the shooting, said the 18 jurors asked him very few questions. He said they wanted to know if Livingston used any force on Kehagias that night.
“It wasn’t too good of a crowd,” Timmerman said. “They looked at me like they couldn’t wait to be done.”
Harnett County District Attorney Vernon Stewart wrestled with a tough decision since receiving a State Bureau of Investigation report on Kehagias’ actions on Nov. 15. Had Kehagias crossed the line? And as a result, should criminal charges be considered?
He put that question to the grand jury Monday. He asked for charges of second-degree murder.
The grand jury’s decision comes just three weeks after the retirement of Larry Rollins, the longtime sheriff who quit with two years remaining on his term. Rollins cited personal reasons but defended Kehagias’ action last month after a swearing-in ceremony for Coats, his successor.
When Judge Lock read the grand jury’s decision to not indict, Livingston’s son, Little John, began to weep. More than a dozen of Livingston’s family members and friends waited all day for the grand jury’s decision.
Penny Setzer, a friend of Livingston’s, said: “I guess the message is you can get away with murder in Harnett County.”
The News & Observer has been investigating the Harnett County Sheriff’s Department and the death of Livingston. A four-part series will begin later this month online and in print. For more details soon, go to newsobserver.com or like The News & Observer’s investigative team’s Facebook page.