Shaking and barely whispering, Tori Morton said she was scared to be near Seneca again, nearly two years after she was in the passenger seat next to Zachary Hammond when a police officer shot him as he drove away in a restaurant parking lot.
Morton has filed a lawsuit against the Seneca Police Department, Police Chief John Covington and Mark Tiller, the former officer who shot the unarmed Hammond during a botched drug sting in 2015.
Before Morton talked with news reporters, for the first time since the shooting, her attorney, Keith Denny, said he had filed two other federal lawsuits alleging wrongful arrests by the Seneca Police Department and Oconee County Sheriff’s Office.
Denny said all three cases allege a lack of training and carelessness by law enforcement officers.
“This is not an attack on law enforcement,” he said. “This is an identification of a failure to train and supervise, and protect the community from the people who are not qualified to do their job.”
Covington declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing department policy on outstanding lawsuits.
Morton said she was taken to several undisclosed locations after the shooting as officers said they were taking her home and while officers attempted to pressure her into saying that Hammond had a gun. No weapon was found.
Morton trembled Wednesday as she talked about her fear and trauma. A bullet hit the passenger headrest near her head.
“They tried to kill me and they killed Zach,” Morton said. “I’m so scared of everything. These are the people who are supposed to help us when no one else can.”
Denny said Tiller shot with abandon and could have killed Morton.
“What would make a trained officer lose control of his emotions and not be able to execute on his training?” Denny said. “Mark Tiller’s rage led him to fire two bullets into the car.”
He said the Department of Justice has sent investigators to talk to Morton.
The department confirmed earlier this year that a federal investigation into the shooting and the Seneca Police Department was continuing. The local prosecutor declined to press charges against Tiller, who no was fired by the department a year after the shooting.
Federal officials have not responded to a request for an update on the investigation since Morton’s lawsuit was filed last month.
Denny said an outstanding marijuana charge, filed in connection with the shooting, has lingered for two years as Seneca officials sought to use it as leverage. Morton lives in North Carolina and avoids Seneca, Denny said.
He said it has taken two years for Morton to be willing to talk about what happened and to push forward with the lawsuit.
“There comes a point where this has to be addressed,” Denny said.
There are similar allegations in the other two lawsuits Denny talked about Wednesday at his Walhalla law firm.
Justin Roach, 26, is suing the Seneca Police Department, Chief Covington and officers Aaron Alexander and Casey Bowling.
Denny said Roach was arrested in April, more than a year after officers obtained a warrant based on a video that allegedly showed Roach in a drug deal.
But the video shows a different person, Denny said, and if officers had matched Roach’s Department of Motor Vehicles photo with the video they would have known they had the wrong person.
Officers could have used those DMV records to get Roach’s address and five minutes of double-checking would have stopped the warrant, Denny said.
Denny said he has filed another case, against the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office, and provided a copy of the records but the records had not been published in an online federal court docket as of last week.
Oconee County Sheriff Mike Crenshaw said his department would defend the lawsuit, although he had yet to see a copy of it.