COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — An NAACP leader in the South Carolina county where a white police officer was sentenced to probation in the killing of a black motorist said officers need more training in how to deal with minorities.
The civil rights organization is watching police departments in North Augusta, where Justin Craven shot the motorist after chasing him to his driveway in February 2014, and in nearby Aiken, which is being sued by a husband and wife who said they were subjected to illegal cavity searches at roadside.
Like the rest of the public, Aiken County NAACP President Phillip Howell saw the video of Craven fatally shooting 68-year-old Ernest Satterwhite for the first time Monday.
“It’s despicable,” said Howell, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Howell said he also was sickened that Craven will serve no time in jail. Craven was sentenced to three years of probation and 80 hours of community service.
But while prosecutors in South Carolina and North Carolina have charged at least five white officers recently with felonies after on-duty shootings of black men, they’re finding that getting jurors to send them to prison can be a far more difficult challenge.
Solicitor Donnie Myers said he still believes Craven committed a felony when he ran up to Satterwhite’s car and fired repeatedly through his window as the drunken driver sat in his driveway.
But when he tried to indict Craven for voluntary manslaughter, the grand jury refused, returning a misdemeanor misconduct charge instead. Myers told The Associated Press he decided then that the only way to get any justice for the dead man was to offer a plea deal to the lesser charge.
After all, if a grand jury, with its rules favoring prosecutors, couldn’t be convinced of the seriousness of Craven’s actions, getting a unanimous verdict from a regular jury would be even more difficult, Myers said.
“We’ve got to convince all 12. All the defense has to do is convince one,” Myers said.
Craven was sentenced probation and community service after pleading guilty Monday. The indictment accused him of “using excessive force and failing to follow and use proper procedures.”
It’s a challenge for prosecutors as more police officers are charged with on-duty crimes: Unless there is evidence of obvious bad intentions, jurors are often wary of second-guessing an officer’s judgment call, said Tom Nolan, a professor of criminology at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.
“People have been conditioned by what they see on television to think that police officers face dangerous situations all the time,” said Nolan, who was a Boston police officer for 27 years. “They give leeway, thinking these extreme situations happen frequently.”
Craven’s dashboard camera from February 2014 shows him charging up to Satterwhite’s open window, gun in hand, and reaching inside with both arms. A struggle ensues inside the car, beyond the camera’s view.
Craven said Satterwhite tried to grab his gun. The video shows him stepping back from the car before firing.
The video has no audio to tell what was being said because the battery on Craven’s body microphone had gone dead, State Law Enforcement Division spokesman Thom Berry said.
Craven is the third white officer in the past year to avoid any time behind bars after being accused of felonies for killing a black man in the Carolinas.
Prosecutors charged former Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs with murder for shooting a man trying to leave a police station, saying he escalated the confrontation. But after two hung juries, prosecutor David Pascoe agreed to a misdemeanor misconduct in office conviction and a year of home detention. Pascoe said he doubted he could ever get a unanimous verdict in that case, the most polarizing of his 20-year career.
North Carolina prosecutors dropped a voluntary manslaughter charge against Charlotte, North Carolina, police officer Randall Kerrick after a jury voted 8-4 to acquit him in the shooting of a black motorist who had knocked on a door seeking help after a car wreck.
Another officer, North Charleston’s Michael Slager, is under house arrest while awaiting his murder trial for fatally shooting a fleeing black motorist. And former state Trooper Sean Groubert is in jail facing up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty in March to aggravated assault and battery for shooting a black man who was reaching for his driver’s license at the officer’s request.