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Prosecutors silent on federal review of Chester police shooting

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John A. Carlos II (copy)

Jason Myers, a Presbyterian minister in Chester, speaks to a crowd gathered at Metropolitan AME Zion Church, in Chester during a candlelight vigil for Ariane McCree. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

South Carolina prosecutors are not disclosing their conclusions from a federal review of a 2019 incident in which Chester police officers shot and killed a handcuffed Black man during a foot chase through a Walmart parking lot.

Their continued silence suggests the pair of officers likely won't be criminally charged in connection with the shooting of Ariane McCree. They fired two dozen shots at McCree, whom officers said was pointing a gun at them as he fled arrest on suspicion of shoplifting a $46 door handle.

The November 2019 shooting gained renewed scrutiny this summer after the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minnesota police officers. The lingering questions and heightened attention prompted Chester’s police chief to release video of the McCree shooting and sparked calls from the mayor for the officers involved to be fired and criminally charged.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson had already declined to press charges. The Lexington Republican decided Chester officers Nicholas Harris and Justin Baker were lawfully defending themselves after he reviewed a State Law Enforcement Division investigation in which some witnesses claimed the 28-year-old McCree was pointing a gun despite behind handcuffed behind his back.

But in June, amid public pressure, Wilson asked U.S. Attorney Peter McCoy’s office to review the case as well. At the time, a Wilson spokesman said federal prosecutors had indicated they were willing to take another look at how the case was handled.

But that is the last the public has heard of the review. A spokesman for McCoy declined to comment when asked for the office’s findings. In fact, the U.S. Attorney's Office for South Carolina never officially confirmed it would review the case.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office issues press releases when it charges someone with a crime, but it typically does not say when it has cleared a suspect of criminal wrongdoing.

Wilson’s office isn’t talking either.

“We can’t comment since it’s not our review so I would refer you to the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Wilson spokesman Robert Kittle wrote in an email to The Post and Courier. “However, I know that their policy is that they cannot comment on or confirm the existence of an ongoing investigation. Sorry.”

The McCree shooting has been a source of division in Chester, a piney community of 5,400 between Columbia and Charlotte on Interstate 77.

Residents who have watched the grainy police body-camera footage of the shooting have drawn wildly different conclusions about what it shows and who was at fault.

McCree had been detained and handcuffed by off-duty Chester police moonlighting as Walmart security. As he was being searched, video shows, he rammed one of the officers and sprinted out of the store, starting the chase.

Police say he made his way back to his car and retrieved a pistol during the course of the foot chase. Body camera footage shows officers pulling a gun from McCree's side after he was hit by three bullets. McCree never fired the gun at officers.

Mayor Wanda Stringfellow, a cousin of McCree’s, joined the McCree family in calling for the officers involved to be fired, in part because they failed to activate their body cameras properly.

Baker didn’t turn his camera on right away, preventing the device from capturing audio in key moments of the altercation in which the officers communicated with McCree. Harris never turned his body camera on at all.

Both Chester City Council and Police Chief Eric Williams have declined to fire the officers, though Harris was disciplined for failing to turn on his body camera.

The McCree family has brought a federal lawsuit against the Police Department over the shooting. Efforts to interview an attorney for the family were unsuccessful.

The family held a Nov. 23 press conference outside the Chester Walmart on the one-year anniversary of the shooting.

"I know one day that justice will be served," said Jasmine McCree, Ariane's sister, "and I ain't giving up because I've got faith in God."

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks.

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