A white former North Augusta police officer pleaded guilty Monday to misconduct in office after fatally shooting an elderly black motorist two years ago, a case that raised questions about deadly force tactics and the public’s right to see dashcam videos of police shootings.
A judge sentenced Justin Craven, 27, to three years of probation and 80 hours of community service after he entered the plea in the death of Ernest Satterwhite, 68, the Aiken Standard reported.
In announcing a penalty that included no imprisonment, the judge said the shooting wasn’t like other officer-involved killings that have garnered notoriety in recent years, alluding to Walter Scott’s death last year in North Charleston.
Yet family members and their lawyer who had seen the video have said it was just as disturbing. Rep. Joe Neal, D-Hopkins, saw the video months ago and said it shows Craven had no business getting probation.
“The reality is that he murdered that man, in my opinion, and got away with it,” said Neal, a black Democrat who has spent decades speaking out against racism in law enforcement and demanding accountability through data and police cameras.
A video released by the State Law Enforcement Division to The Post and Courier showed Craven following a Chrysler Sebring weaving through traffic and then onto a dirt road. Satterwhite then parked next to his house, and Craven can be seen rushing toward the driver’s side of the car, lunging in for a split-second and then pulling back to fire.
After the guilty plea, Craven’s attorney told The Associated Press his client shouldn’t have run up to Satterwhite’s car at the end of the 13-minute chase.
“His mistake in judgment was approaching the car and getting too close. He had to make a split-second decision instead of like now, when everyone gets all the time they want to analyze it.” Jack Swerling said his client thought about going to trial to clear his name but feared that would be difficult with several other police shootings in the news.
The Satterwhite shooting highlighted a nationwide problem uncovered by The Post and Courier last year: officers who fire into cars to stop suspects.
The newspaper’s “Shots Fired” analysis found that officers routinely said they fired because they feared for their lives. But a closer inspection of many of these cases showed that officers were in little or no danger.
Criminal justice experts say departments should prohibit officers from firing at vehicles and instead train them to get out of the way.
Like many other police shootings, Satterwhite’s death also raised questions about whether videos should be released quickly to the public. Authorities had kept dashboard camera footage under wraps for more than two years, a delay that some argued violates the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Neal said the failure to release the footage “smacks of a cover-up.”
Craven’s guilty plea came as the General Assembly is considering a bill requiring dashcam footage to be released immediately when it “involves an officer involved incident resulting in death, injury, property damage, or the use of deadly force.” The Senate passed the bill last week, and the House is expected to take it up this week.
The shooting stems from the night of Feb. 9, 2014, when Craven spotted a Chrysler Sebring that veered in and out of a lane. Craven turned on his blue lights, and Satterwhite turned in to a Wal-Mart parking lot. Craven followed Satterwhite as he drove back onto a road and struck a mailbox and another car. Satterwhite then drove toward Edgefield in what an attorney for Satterwhite’s family would call a “low-speed chase.”
Satterwhite eventually pulled into the driveway of his home. An incident report said that “a struggle ensued between Officer Craven and the suspect over Officer Craven’s duty weapon. At that point, officer Craven discharged his duty weapon at the suspect an undetermined amount of times.”
After the Satterwhite shooting, an incident report by the Edgefield County Sheriff’s Office said that Craven approached the driver’s side door and “fired three or four shots into the vehicle and stated, ‘the suspect grabbed my gun.’ ” According to Carter Elliott Jr., the Satterwhites’ attorney, the video shows Craven lunging into the car with his gun drawn and then firing his weapon. “Why would you do that?” he told the newspaper last year. “The guy had stopped and was parked in his own driveway.”
Elliot viewed the video as part of his lawsuit against North Augusta and Edgefield. It showed Craven moving toward the driver’s side of Satterwhite’s car and lunging toward him, Elliott said. It appears that Satterwhite then raised his hands in surprise, not as if he was grabbing a weapon, the attorney said. Craven then pulls back and starts shooting, he said.
No weapon was found in Satterwhite’s car.
“There was no question about that,” Elliott told the newspaper.
The shooting was captured on Craven’s dashboard camera. But SLED, which investigated the shooting, and the North Augusta Department of Public Safety denied The Post and Courier’s request to release it.
Satterwhite’s family settled the lawsuit last year for $1.2 million. All told, South Carolina towns and cities halve paid more than $25 million to settle lawsuits from officer-involved shootings, according to the newspaper’s “Shots Fired” database.
A prosecutor wanted the North Augusta police officer charged with voluntary manslaughter, which carries up to 30 years in prison, but a grand jury refused to indict Craven. He later was charged with a felony — discharging a gun into an occupied vehicle. But Craven eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser misdemeanor misconduct in office charge, which carries up to a year behind bars.
Neal, the representative, said the Satterwhite case was inconsistent with what happened in the Scott shooting. “In one case, an officer is charged appropriately with murder. In another, a misdemeanor. I feel for the family.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414.