South Carolina police find themselves in the midst of controversy once again, this time for a dashcam video of a cop killing a man so ‘horrible and offensive,’ state officials have refused to release the footage.
On April 7, the same day North Charleston Officer Michael Slager was arrested for the shooting of Walter Scott, catapulting the state into national scrutiny, another case bubbled quietly beneath the radar.
That day, North Augusta police officer Justin Craven, 25, was arrested for the fatal shooting of unarmed, 68-year old great grandfather Ernest Satterwhite in the driveway of his home, which was nine miles beyond Craven’s jurisdiction.
In February 2014, Craven tried to pull over Satterwhite for drunk driving, chasing him into the next county in a slow-speed pursuit. According to reports from the Edgefield County Sheriff’s Office, whose deputies also joined the pursuit, Craven ran up and fired several shots into the driver’s side door after Satterwhite had pulled in his driveway.
Craven later claimed Satterwhite had tried to grab his gun, even though he had fired through a closed door. He said he was in fear for his life.
Craven’s dashcam video has been shown to a few people outside of law enforcement. Several who saw say say it’s horrible and offensive, and Satterwhite had no time to respond to Craven. They won’t speak on the record because they have been threatened with legal action since the video hasn’t been publicly released.
The State Law Enforcement Division’s decision to withhold the video contrasts with its handling of another police shooting. Earlier this year the agency quickly released a dashcam video of a case in which a white officer shot an unarmed black man in North Charleston.
The lawsuit alleged Craven ignored the Edgefield deputies’ orders to stop and let them manage the chase when it entered their county, close to 2 miles from Satterwhite’s home. It alleged Satterwhite never tried to grab the officer’s gun when Craven fired five times, hitting him with four bullets that killed him.
The suit goes on to claim that the mortally wounded man was dragged from the car, restrained and left on the ground unattended until paramedics came.
Initially, prosecutors attempted to indict Craven on voluntary manslaughter charges, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. A grand jury disagreed and indicted him on a lesser misdemeanor charge of misconduct by an officer, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.
As we learned from both the Freddie Gray and Walter Scott incident, the release of video footage is paramount in how cases like these are handled. It would stand to reason that if the video is as horrific as many claim, that Craven would be indicted on a much more severe charge.
Last month, the City of Chicago paid a $5 million settlement to a family of a teen they killed after shooting him 16 times, claiming he had lunged at them with a knife, when the dash cam video proved otherwise. That settlement was also made without the video being released.
The State Law Enforcement Division Chief Chief Mark Keel is concerned that releasing the video could hamper the officer’s right to a fair trial.
“In the North Augusta case, you’ve got a different set of facts that has a great concern. It’s about justice and seeing everybody regardless gets a fair trial,” said Keel, whose agency denied a Freedom of Information Act request for the video from the Associated Press in September and again in April after SLED released footage from the North Charleston case.
But public records advocates said that reasoning is wrong. They cite a 2011 court ruling that law enforcement agencies can’t refuse to release dashcam videos unless they give a specific reason, like concerns about releasing the name of a suspect before an arrest or the location of a sting operation
“That is totally unequal. Public records law needs to be applied the same in every case. Why do the police get to decide what the public sees? That’s not their job,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.
SLED denied a Freedom of Information Act request for the video from the Associated Press in September and again in April after releasing footage from a similar incident.
By choosing to to keep the footage under wraps, SLED continues perpetuate the paradigm of the publics’ mistrust of police. While a family grieves for the death of a patriarch, his killer remains free and employed, on paid administrative leave as he awaits his trial.
The question that has not been asked: Had Satterwhite shot Craven in an incident caught on dash cam video, would police refuse to release the video to ensure he receives a fair trial?