Officer kills man through car door in his driveway

AP News
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Posted: Sep 30, 2014 12:33 PM
Officer kills man through car door in his driveway

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. (AP) — Ernest Satterwhite was a laid-back former mechanic with a habit of ignoring police officers who tried to pull him over — an act of defiance that ultimately got him killed.

The 68-year-old black great-grandfather was shot to death after a slow-speed chase as he parked in his own driveway, by a 25-year-old white police officer who repeatedly fired through the driver's side door.

Investigators determined that North Augusta Public Safety Officer Justin Craven broke the law. A prosecutor, in a rare action against a police officer, sought to charge him with voluntary manslaughter, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. But the grand jury disagreed, indicting him on a misdemeanor.

The debate over how police use force against unarmed people has become a national issue since an unarmed 18-year-old black man was shot to death in August by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, where unrest still lingers.

But most police shootings make only local headlines, and just for a day or two. The refusal of authorities to release public information about these on-duty actions by taxpayer-paid officials is a big reason why. As with many such killings, Satterwhite's death in February remains shrouded in mystery.

Video can make a difference: South Carolina gained the national spotlight last week after a dashboard camera showed how in just a few seconds Trooper Sean Groubert went from asking motorist Levar Jones for his license for a supposed seat belt violation, to shooting at him repeatedly without provocation, even as Jones put his hands in the air. Jones was hit once and is recovering.

State Public Safety Director Leroy Smith called that shooting "disturbing," and Groubert was promptly fired and charged with felony assault.

Sometimes, the video can exonerate officers: In August, a South Carolina prosecutor refused to file criminal charges against a York County deputy who wounded a 70-year-old man after mistaking his cane for a shotgun during an after-dark traffic stop. Using video, the sheriff showed how the cane's shaft could be mistaken for a gun barrel in the dim light.

So far, 35 people were shot by police in South Carolina this year; 16 were killed. The state is on pace to surpass last year's total of 42 people shot by police.

In Satterwhite's case, prosecutors won't say why they sought a felony charge against Craven, who chased Satterwhite for 9 miles, beyond city limits and into Edgefield County.

Experts say it's the first time an officer was charged in a fatal shooting in roughly a decade. But the grand jury opted for "misconduct in office," a charge used for sheriffs who make inmates do their personal work, or officers who ask for bribes. Their single-page indictment, returned in August, contains no details other than accusing Craven of "using excessive force and failing to follow and use proper procedures."

Black leaders were astonished that an officially unjustified shooting of an unarmed man should merit such a light charge.

"It diminishes the nature of the violation — of the death. This man's life is only worth a misdemeanor?" said state Rep. Joe Neal, a Democrat who has spent decades speaking out against racism in law enforcement and demanding accountability through data and police cameras.

Neal, who is black, also wants authorities to release evidence more quickly in police-involved shootings. Authorities often say doing so could taint potential jurors. Neal says that doesn't give people enough credit.

The State Law Enforcement Division denied requests filed by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act to learn what evidence was gathered against Craven. Solicitor Donnie Myers, who is handling the case, didn't return phone calls. North Augusta Police, the Edgefield County Sheriff's Office and Craven's lawyer, Jack Swerling, declined to comment.

The few details released raised concerns among law enforcement experts. In the likely 10 to 15 minutes he trailed Satterwhite, Craven should have had time to learn he was headed home and had no violent incidents on his criminal record, said University of South Carolina criminology professor Geoffrey Alpert.

Police records show Satterwhite had been arrested more than a dozen times for traffic violations, most of them for driving under suspension or under the influence. Most of the charges led to convictions. He also was charged at least three times for failing to stop as officers tried to pull him over. But his record shows no evidence he ever physically fought with an officer.

Edgefield County deputies who joined in the chase reported that Craven ran up to Satterwhite's parked car and fired several shots into the driver's side door, telling the other officers that Satterwhite tried to grab his gun. The other officers couldn't get Satterwhite's door open, so they broke the passenger side window, unlocked that door and dragged him out.

"Why would he run up to the car like that?" asked Alpert. "Why would he put himself in a situation to use deadly force? Why would he put his gun close enough for him to grab it?"

Satterwhite, who worked for years as a mechanic, liked to fish and was remembered by his family as a laid-back man who kept to himself, left behind six children, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Seven months after the funeral, and eight days after his indictment, Craven was put on administrative leave — with pay.

Satterwhite's family then sued the North Augusta Department of Public Safety, Edgefield County and its sheriff's office.

The lawsuit alleges Craven ignored the Edgefield deputies' orders to stop and let them manage the chase when it entered their county, about 2 miles from Satterwhite's home. It claims Satterwhite never tried to grab the officer's gun when Craven fired five times, hitting him with four bullets — two in the chest.

The family says the officers yanked the mortally wounded man out of the car, restrained him and left him on the ground unattended until paramedics arrived.

Their lawyer, Carter Elliott, hopes to force authorities to release any video and other evidence.

North Augusta's Public Safety Department has refused to release any details about Craven's history. City officials didn't make him available for interviews, and he didn't respond to emails.

Police agencies hurt their own credibility when they withhold information, allowing rumors and speculation to fill the void, Alpert said.

"They work for us — the public," Alpert said. "You need to put as much accurate information out there as you can to get in front of the issue and create your own story."

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP .