Officer Sherry Hall’s call over the police radio that she’d been shot had fellow cops swarming a dark, wooded cul-de-sac in Jackson. Then they fanned out across Butts County in search of a suspect.
Hall described her assailant as a 6-foot, 230-pound African-American man wearing a green shirt and black jogging pants. Unprovoked, the man pulled out a gun and opened fire, Hall said. The bullet was found lodged in her protective vest. Hall’s account of the Sept. 13, 2016, incident came on the heels of shootings of law enforcement officers nationwide that were said to be in retaliation for white officers killing black men. And it stoked fears of unrest in the community some 50 miles south of Atlanta.
But Hall’s claim turned out to be a complete fabrication. After hearing evidence, including Hall’s own testimony, a jury recently convicted the former cop of 11 criminal charges, including making false statements, violating her oath and tampering with evidence.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Wilson then made Hall, 43, pay for her crimes. He gave her 15 years in prison followed by another 23 years on probation.
Like many, Jackson Police Chief James Morgan said he doesn’t know why Hall did it.
“She did a great job for us, up until that night,” Morgan said. “So we didn’t see this coming. But this was not a mistake. It was a conscious decision and a choreographed act.”
A manhunt ensued in the days after Hall’s report, putting local residents on edge. At one point, a man who resembled Hall’s description of her shooter was taken in for questioning. But he was released.
“We didn’t need an uprising,” Morgan said. “We didn’t want any racial tensions. This put a dim view on our department. But we rebounded. It defused pretty quickly.”
Hall worked for three months on the police force in Jackson, a city of about 5,000. She is now serving her time at Arrendale State Prison in Alto. McDonough attorney Jordan Van Matre said he recently filed a motion for a new trial on her behalf.
Hall could have resolved her case with a plea deal. Before trial, she was offered a sentence of five years in prison followed by five years on probation. But she turned it down.
“She’s scared to death of prison,” Hall’s brother, Steve Weaver, said. “She wanted to take a plea, but not one that included prison time. She thought spending 90 days in jail before posting bond was enough.”
The family never expected Wilson would impose such a lengthy sentence if she were convicted, said Weaver, a 47-year-old pastor of a small church in Griffin.
“She definitely didn’t get treated fairly,” he said. “As her brother, obviously it’s hard for me to admit she’s guilty. But if she is guilty, the sentence she received was especially harsh. We hope to seek a sentence reduction in the near future. I mean, this was a nonviolent crime.”
Hall initially told investigators that when she pulled into Camilla Court around midnight she turned her car spotlight on a black man wearing a green shirt. The next thing she knew was she was shot, she said, adding that she took cover behind her patrol car and fired off two rounds in response.
But in the ensuing days, Hall’s account of what happened began to unravel.
First of all, she didn’t realize that her squad car’s video system was operating even though she’d failed to turn on the blue lights, Assistant District Attorney James Moss said. In the audio from that recording, you can hear only two shots being fired, not three, he said.
Three shell casings were found at the scene: two near the patrol car and one in the woods where Hall said her shooter had been.
As expected, the two casings near the car matched the gun Hall was carrying that night. But the one found in the woods matched a department-issued backup firearm that Hall kept in her nightstand, Moss said. And that gun’s firing pin, which would help further identify a bullet shot from the gun, had been tampered with.
No one has been able to say exactly what happened and how the bullet became lodged in her vest.
Hall also gave inconsistent descriptions about the alleged shooter, said Moss, who credited local authorities and the GBI for conducting a thorough investigation.
“It was dumbfounding that she went to trial,” he said. “She never took responsibility. She invented out of whole cloth a black man who shot her, and if law enforcement hadn’t done their jobs right, we could have had a gentleman wrongly charged with a crime.”
When asked if the lengthy prison term could have been the result of this happening amid national turmoil over police shootings, Moss said, “I think certainly that’s a factor that was taken into account.”
There has been speculation that Hall may have fabricated the incident to improve her stature in the department or to set herself up to get disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder. But no one close to the case can provide any solid answers.
“I couldn’t prove what the motive was,” Moss said. “But I could prove that what she said was a big bucket full of malarkey.”
Kimberly Berry, who represented Hall at trial, said her client was suffering from severe emotional distress at the time of the incident.
“The day after, she checked herself into a facility for mental health treatment,” Berry said. “She was basically having a nervous breakdown.”
Berry added: “I think Sherry, to this day, doesn’t know exactly what happened.”