Ex-deputy is liable for Columbus teen’s excessive force death in 2015, appeals court rules

Dash cam video shows end of high speed chase in which suspect died in custody

Recently released dash cam video shows Harris County, Georgia, sheriff’s deputies’ encounter with Nicholas Dyksma of Columbus after a high speed chase. Dyksma died.
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Recently released dash cam video shows Harris County, Georgia, sheriff’s deputies’ encounter with Nicholas Dyksma of Columbus after a high speed chase. Dyksma died.

A Georgia appeals court has upheld a local judge’s ruling that only one former Harris County deputy can be held accountable for a Columbus youth dying in custody after a police chase on Aug. 31, 2015.

That former deputy now is serving time in prison for sexually assaulting women he pulled over for purported traffic violations.

A three-judge panel of Georgia’s 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that ex-deputy Thomas Carl Pierson is entitled to no immunity for acting in his official capacity during the early morning arrest of 18-year-old Nicholas Dyksma, who fled into Harris County during a high-speed chase initiated by Columbus police.

That ruling upholds U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land’s decision from July 16, 2018, which Pierson had appealed.

Craig T. Jones, the Washington, Georgia, attorney who filed suit on behalf of parents Greg and Tammy Dyksma and Nicholas Dyksma’s estate, said the next step is for the case to go to trial in federal court in Columbus.

The Dyksmas likely will recover nothing from Pierson, but they can seek compensation from the county insurance policy that covered Pierson’s actions as an agent of the government, Jones said.

Greg Dyksma talks about his son Nicholas Tanner Dyksma, an 18-year-old Northside High School graduate, who died in 2015 after a high-speed chase with law enforcement personnel.

The arrest

The chase that led to Dyksma’s death started at the Columbus Circle K at 2536 Airport Thruway.

A worker saw the Dyksma slumped over in the driver’s seat of his pickup truck, and called police.

The responding officer tapped on the window until Dyskma woke up, saw the officer and drove off. The officer followed and tried to pull Dyksma over to ensure he wasn’t impaired

Dyksma then sped north on U.S. 27, running red lights and reaching speeds up to 85 mph, with police in hot pursuit.

Columbus police turned the chase over to Harris County deputies as Dyksma crossed the county line. Harris County deputies used spike strips to blow the Toyota pickup’s tires, and boxed it in at at the 8 mile marker.

The dash camera on a Harris County patrol cruiser showed the pickup race by a deputy’s southbound car near Holland Road at 2:11 a.m. before it ran off the highway. Four deputies converged on it and broke out the driver’s side window as one used a Taser on Dyksma, who fell over into the passenger’s seat as the truck’s tires continued to spin, propelling it farther off the road.

The deputies smashed the passenger’s side window, opened the passenger’s door and dragged Dyksma out, placing him face-down and handcuffing him.

The dash-cam video showed Pierson put his right knee on the back of Dyksma’s neck for 20 seconds as the teen was handcuffed. Dyksma stopped resisting after that, yet Pierson again pressed his knee to the back of Dyksma’s neck for 17 more seconds.

Around 2:20 a.m., the deputies realized Dyksma had stopped breathing, and started giving him chest compressions. An ambulance rushed him to Columbus’ Midtown Medical Center, now Piedmont Columbus Regional, where he could not be revived.

The lawsuit

The teen’s parents initially filed suit against all of the deputies, and later Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley, alleging violations of Dyksma’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, as well as state law claims.

The suit claimed that the other deputies should have intervened as Pierson continued to press his knee to the teen’s neck, and that Jolley’s office had a policy of permitting the unlawful use of excessive force.

Land threw out those claims, writing that the other deputies — Joe Harmon, Heath Dawson and William Sturdevant — were entitled to qualified immunity while acting in their official capacities, as they “did not violate clearly established law when they failed to intervene during Pierson’s application of this clearly excessive force.”

The supervisory claim against Jolley also was dismissed, as Land found the Dyksma family’s claim lacked sufficient evidence to raise the issue of whether Jolley “participated in or had a policy of that caused Pierson’s excessive force.”

But the claim against Pierson stood. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation autopsy found Dyksma’s cause of death to be “sudden death during an altercation with law enforcement, after deployment of an electroconductive device, with prone positioning, compression of the neck and torso, and acute methamphetamine intoxication.”

Land’s ruling recited multiple 11th Circuit precedents regarding the excessive use of force in officers’ arresting suspects who no longer were resisting, and concluded:

“Eleventh Circuit precedent … clearly established by August 2015 that after a suspect is subdued, handcuffed, not resisting, and not a flight or safety risk, officers cannot kick him, punch him, slam his head into a car or onto hot pavement, use pepper spray on him, or use so much force to handcuff him that it breaks his arm. An obvious corollary is that an officer cannot use his knee and body weight to press to the ground the neck of an incapacitated, handcuffed, non-resisting arrestee. It should have been clear to the deputies in this case that it would be unconstitutional to use such force on Nicholas.”


Almost two years from the day Nicholas Dyksma died, a Harris County jury found Pierson guilty of eight charges related to three traffic stops in the fall of 2015 through February 2016, in which three different women accused the deputy of misconduct ranging from stalking to forced sodomy.

On Aug. 30, 2017, he was found guilty on two counts of sexual assault on a person in custody, four counts of violating his oath as a public official, and one count each of false imprisonment and tampering with evidence.

He was acquitted of aggravated sodomy, sexual battery and two counts of stalking.

Pierson broke down crying as he was taken into custody after the verdict.

On Oct. 19, 2017, Superior Court Judge Bobby Peters sentenced him to 17 years in prison with eight to serve.

He began serving his sentence on Nov. 19, 2017, and is currently in the Long State Prison in Ludowici, Georgia.