Former state Highway Patrol trooper Sean Groubert pleaded guilty Monday to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature in the 2014 shooting of an unarmed motorist at a St. Andrews gas station.
Groubert, 32, who could be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison, will be sentenced at a later date. But Circuit Judge Casey Manning ordered him taken into custody immediately.
During a 21-minute hearing, prosecutors revealed that Groubert gave investigators a version of events sharply at variance with the scenes caught on video from the camera in his patrol car.
In his statement read by assistant solicitor Meghan Walker, Groubert told investigators that Levar Jones, the man shot, appeared to be threatening him with a pistol. Jones was wounded in the Sept. 4, 2014, incident.
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Jones, Groubert told investigators, lunged into his vehicle and came back out with “his arms locked toward me and with what appeared to be an unknown black weapon in his hand. I believed it to be a pistol.”
“I feared for my life as these events unfolded and had no doubt he was going to kill me,” Groubert told investigators in the statement read.
Groubert also told investigators that he was unsure if Jones was “actively shooting at me” during the incident, according to the statement.
Walker played the video from Groubert’s vehicle showing that as Jones turned and reached into his vehicle, Groubert began firing almost immediately and at no time did Jones appear to be holding any pistol.
Although Groubert described Jones as “highly aggressive, being belligerent and and ready to attack me from the second I initiated the traffic stop,” the video shows Jones being polite, complying with the trooper’s request and turning only to get his driver’s license in the car.
The video also showed that Groubert continued firing even when Jones put both hands high in the air. From the time when Jones turned to reach back into his car to get his license and Groubert starting to fire, about five seconds elapsed, according to the video.
The case attracted nationwide publicity as one of a series of controversial shootings of black men and youths by white police officers. Groubert is white; Jones is black.
One bullet struck Jones in the hip. After the video in Groubert’s car showed he had no reason to draw his gun and shoot Jones, Groubert was fired and charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.
Walker said the incident began when Jones on his way home from work went to the Broad River Road gas station and unfastened his seat belt as he pulled in there.
At the same time, Groubert was pulling out of the station from a previous traffic stop.
“He put his car into reverse, turned around, and made a traffic stop of Mr. Jones,” Walker told Manning.
Groubert worked as a truck driver after being fired as a trooper.
The statement that Groubert made to investigators that Walker read described him as being “in fear of my life” and “everything was happening in fast-forward.”
During the hearing, Groubert’s lawyer, former solicitor Barney Giese, told Manning that his client suffers from PTSD related to a 2012 shooting in Five Points that involved the former trooper. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental condition characterized as having been caused by an unsettling event in one’s past that triggers uncontrollable reactions in the present.
In that 2012 incident, Giese said, Groubert “was shot at and returned fire ... He is on some medication at this time.”
Evidence about PTSD will likely be presented at Groubert’s future hearing when Giese will try to convince Manning to give his client a light sentence, such as probation. At that hearing, prosecutors will present evidence to show that Groubert deserves time in prison.
Jones was at the hearing but did not speak. Before the hearing, he fiddled with a Rubik’s Cube, but put it away once the hearing began.
After the shooting, investigators determined Jones was not armed and that he had no firearm in his vehicle.
State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, the attorney who represented Jones, noted after the hearing the divergence between the video and Groubert’s account of the incident.
“I’m not sure if Groubert actually believes what he said or if he just flat-out made it up,” Rutherford said. “Either way, it’s disturbing for someone like a state trooper who is held in such high regard to say something like that when the reality is so different.”