Attorney asks for grand jury to probe police fatal shooting of Seneca teen

Lawyers for the family of Zachary Hammond want an independent state investigation into Sunday’s police shooting in Seneca, which happened as he was eating ice cream on a first date.

Hammond’s lawyers, Ronnie Richter and Eric Bland, on Thursday called the shooting a senseless overreach of law enforcement, and that Hammond was shot from behind, which showed that he posed no threat to police.

Hammond, 19, and Tori Dianna Morton, of Pickens 23, reportedly were eating ice cream in a Hardee’s parking lot and holding hands when police converged as part of a drug operation, Richter said.

Hammond was shot twice at point-blank range.

Richter and Bland have seen photos of the bullet entry wounds. One wound was in the rear right shoulder, Richter said.

“Zachary Hammond was shot from behind and his car was not moving,” added Bland, who said the evidence conflicts with the police department’s account.

Seneca Police Chief John Covington has said that the officer fired when the vehicle turned toward him in a threatening way.

Both the officer and Hammond were white.

Hammond, who had no criminal record and graduated last year from Seneca High, was unarmed when he was shot.

Morton wasn’t struck by the bullets. She was arrested on a charge of simple possession of marijuana.

“This was so senseless,” Richter said. “For a passenger who allegedly was in possession of marijuana, this kid got killed.” Richter and Bland asked for a state grand jury to investigate the case.

By law, the state grand jury doesn’t handle homicide cases, said J. Mark Powell, spokesman for state Attorney General Alan Wilson.

In situations of potential conflicts of interest, the Attorney General’s Office can prosecute instead of local solicitors, he said. But so far the office hasn’t been asked to take the Seneca case.

Seneca police asked the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate the shooting, a standard practice with most departments.

Richter said the family trusts SLED to do a thorough job, and that by asking for a state grand jury investigation, “we mean an investigation that’s independent of local agencies. We think this is a statewide problem and a national problem.”

The Post and Courier’s recent series, “Shots Fired” highlighted the inherent conflict of interest in police shootings where SLED does an investigation but then hands over results to local solicitors who work hand-in-glove with police.

The series also revealed that officers often justified their shootings by saying a vehicle was moving toward them when video and other evidence showed that the vehicles were moving away and out of harm’s way.

Officer-involved shootings are costly in blood and money. In the past decade, lawsuits challenging officers’ actions have cost South Carolina municipalities and their insurers at least $17 million, the series found.