COLUMBIA, S.C. — Prosecutors in the Carolinas have charged at least five white officers recently with felonies after on-duty shootings of black men, but they’re finding that getting jurors to send them to prison can be a far more difficult challenge.
Solicitor Donnie Myers still believes officer Justin Craven committed a felony when he ran up to Ernest Satterwhite’s car and fired repeatedly through his window as the 68-year-old drunken-driver sat in his driveway after leading officers on a 13-mile chase.
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 that he decided then that the only way to get any justice for the dead driver was to offer a plea deal to this 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 to three years’ probation and 80 hours of community service after pleading guilty on 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.
Another officer, North Charleston’s Michael Slager, is under house arrest waiting for 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.
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 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.
In Craven’s case, the officer’s defense team rejected the plea offer for more than a year, even after Myers persuaded a different grand jury to indict him on the felony charge of firing into an occupied vehicle, carrying up to 10 years in prison.
Craven finally took the deal as his trial loomed this week, and Myers said he couldn’t rescind the offer at that point.
“I couldn’t back up on that. It had been offered,” Myers said. Besides: “It would have been a tough trial. Based on the chase — it would have been a tough matter.”
Satterwhite’s relatives accepted a nearly $1.2 million settlement from the city of North Augusta in April 2015 after suing the police department, and the criminal conviction could make it difficult for the 27-year-old Craven to serve again in law enforcement. He currently works as a building inspector for the city.
Defense lawyer Jack Swerling said it was a mistake in judgment to rush up to the driver, but said Craven’s concern was justified because the 13-minute chase, also captured on dashcam video, showed him swerving into oncoming traffic and off the side of the road, and hitting at least two other cars.
State police later said Satterwhite’s blood-alcohol content was 0.15 percent, nearly twice the legal limit. Court records show the car mechanic had more than a dozen traffic violations, including at least three times when he refused to stop for police. The same records also showed that he was never violent toward officers.
Elected prosecutors face pressure from voters who want them to be fair, but not too tough on the people protecting them, Nolan said.
In Myers’ case, getting re-elected is no longer a concern. After 40 years as an elected prosecutor, he decided last month not to run again after his own arrest in February on a charge of driving under the influence.