COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — After a South Carolina police officer shot and killed a driver in 2014, he told investigators the man had grabbed his gun — but a newly released investigative file reveals that the driver’s DNA was not found on the muzzle of the officer’s weapon.
And a police dashcam video shows the unarmed driver appeared to briefly wave his empty hands out his window seconds before the shooting.
The State Law Enforcement Division released its investigative file on the shooting Thursday in response to a Freedom of Information request from The Associated Press.
North Augusta police officer Justin Craven killed Ernest Satterwhite after a car chase two years ago. Craven pleaded guilty earlier this month to misdemeanor misconduct in office — after a grand jury refused to indict him on a felony count of voluntary manslaughter — and was sentenced to three years of probation and 80 hours of community service.
He is the third white officer in the Carolinas in the past year to avoid jail for the shooting deaths of unarmed black men.
Craven had been trying to stop Satterwhite, who was seen weaving between lanes in February 2014. Satterwhite led police on a 13-minute chase, swerving all over the road and sideswiping mailboxes and other cars. No one was injured before the chase ended in Satterwhite’s dirt driveway. State agents said Satterwhite’s blood-alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit.
Craven told investigators he never saw Satterwhite’s hand gesture in the dark, according to the investigative file, and the gesture is difficult to see on the video from Craven’s dashboard camera.
After investigators showed Craven the video, he didn’t change his contention that he was justified in charging up to Satterwhite’s car and sticking his gun in the driver’s side window. He said he fired because he feared for his life after the 68-year-old man grabbed his gun, according to the state investigators’ report.
“I believe his intentions were to kill me, by any means necessary. I shot when I had the ability to do so,” Craven wrote in a response to an agent 12 days after the shooting.
Craven, who was 24 and weighed about 210 pounds at the time, told investigators the 150-pound Satterwhite “leaned back in the seat and suddenly reaches out and grabbed the barrel of my duty weapon while pulling my feet off the ground and jerking me partially into the vehicle. At this time I knew my life was in danger.”
DNA analysis done by state police found none of Satterwhite’s DNA on the muzzle of Craven’s gun.
Craven’s lawyer, Jack Swerling, suggested that might mean nothing.
“DNA doesn’t always transfer when someone touches something,” he told the AP.
After Craven’s plea on April 11, Swerling said the officer made a mistake in judgment by rushing up to Satterwhite’s window against almost all police policy and he regrets the shooting. North Augusta paid Satterwhite’s family a nearly $1.2 million settlement. The city also kept Craven on the payroll as a code inspector.
Shortly before the shooting, supervisors had asked Craven to call off the chase because he was entering neighboring Edgefield County. Craven said he kept following because Edgefield County deputies weren’t quite in position to continue following Satterwhite, according to the investigative report.
SLED agents asked Craven why he didn’t do a “felony traffic stop,” where an officer stays behind his patrol car or other cover and demands the driver throw his keys out the window, come out with his hands on his head and get on the ground. That protects an officer in case a suspect has a weapon and prevents someone from grabbing of the officer’s own gun.
“I believe the driver was going to run and I believed if I closed the gap between me and the subject it would be a better outcome,” Craven said.
North Augusta Public Safety Sgt. Jason Ramey joined Craven in the chase and was running toward Satterwhite’s car when Craven fired five shots after pulling his gun out of the window. Two shots hit Satterwhite.
Ramey can be seen in his own dashcam video putting his arm around an agitated Craven after the shooting and removing the officer’s gun from his holster, according to the report.
“I was able to calm Officer Craven down some,” Ramey wrote in his statement.
Craven said he yelled at Satterwhite to “Show me your hands!” as the officer ran to the window. Ramey said sirens were too loud to recall whether Craven said anything.
Both officers had microphones that attach to their uniforms, but the batteries were dead.
Satterwhite bled to death from a gunshot wound to the chest. The officers handcuffed him after removing him from his car and did some first aid, wrapping a bandage around one of his wounds.
Paramedics arrived 20 minutes later.
SLED also released crime scene photos. One shows the car in neutral and still running well after the shooting. Another shows five bottles of gin in the trunk of Satterwhite’s car.