After more than 18 months, the case of a former S.C. Highway Patrol trooper accused of shooting an unarmed black man outside Columbia during a traffic stop over a seat belt violation could be headed to court this week.
Although 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson has clamped a lid of secrecy over the case of former trooper Sean Groubert, multiple sources in South Carolina’s legal and law enforcement community have told The State newspaper Johnson’s prosecutors will call the case Monday or soon thereafter.
Groubert’s lawyer, Barney Giese, a former 5th Circuit solicitor, also had no comment. “I can only say it is pending,” Giese said recently.
Groubert is charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature in the shooting of motorist Levar Edward Jones on Sept. 4, 2014. Groubert is Caucasian; Jones is African-American.
Among the possibilities of Monday’s court action: Groubert could plead guilty hoping for a light sentence, or he could demand a trial by jury, which would involve multiple witnesses and take days or weeks.
Jones’ shooting attracted national attention and was one of a series of controversial police shootings of unarmed African-American men and youths that hit a fever pitch the month before, when a white officer fatally shot an unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In that case, local and federal authorities decided there was not enough evidence to press charges against the officer.
Jones’ incident also heightened awareness of the importance of police video cameras in documenting confrontations involving civilians and police.
In this case, Groubert’s dash-cam video showed Jones standing outside his vehicle and then reaching back inside to get his driver’s license from his wallet on the front seat. At that point, Groubert drew his gun, dashed sideways and fired several shots as he was moving.
Jones, struck in the hip, fell to the ground, and the audio portion of the video captured him saying in puzzled tones, “What did I do, sir?” and “Why did you, you, shoot me?”
Jones was not armed, and no firearm was found in his vehicle.
The shooting took place in the parking lot of a Circle K gas station at the intersection of Broad River and Whiteford roads in the St. Andrews area of Columbia. Groubert had pulled Jones’ Dodge Durango SUV over for a seat belt violation.
A one-time S.C. Trooper of the Year, Groubert faces 20 years in prison if convicted.
On Sept. 19, 2014, 15 days after Groubert’s shooting of Jones, S.C. Department of Public Safety director Leroy Smith fired the trooper and blamed the shooting on him.
Groubert misread that Jones was a threat, used too much force for too long and violated several agency policies, Smith said in defending the dismissal.
“This incident occurred in broad daylight. Mr. Groubert had a clear and unobstructed view of Mr. Jones,” Smith said.
“While Mr. Groubert was within the law to stop Mr. Jones for a safety-belt violation, the force administered in this case was unwarranted, inconsistent with how our troopers are trained and clearly in violation of department policies,” Smith said.
Five days after he was fired, Groubert was arrested and charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. The dash-cam video was first made public that day when it was played during a bond hearing for Groubert. He was given bond and released.
A few months after the shooting, Jones’ attorney, Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, won a $285,000 settlement from the state’s Insurance Reserve Fund for Jones. Normally, it takes many months or even more than a year for the state’s Insurance Reserve Fund to pay a claim.
Groubert’s initial version of events, which he gave in statements to law enforcement, originally painted Jones in a far more threatening light than did the video.
Although Groubert’s shooting of Jones is often discussed in the context of other white police confrontations with black civilians, University of South Carolina School of Law professor Seth Stoughton said it’s important keep in mind that each incident has its own set of circumstances and stands by itself.
“The prosecution of a police officer is pretty narrow. It’s only focused on the actions of one officer,” said Stoughton, a former police officer who teaches criminal law.
One broader lesson of the Groubert case, however, is that it vividly showed the key role of video in police-civilian incidents, Stoughton said.
“Video will continue to play a larger and larger role in cases like this,” Stoughton said.
Although Groubert’s attorney has not commented on what defense he will use if the case goes to trial, some have publicly speculated that the ex-trooper will make use of a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder claim based on a 2012 shooting incident he was involved in.
In that case, Groubert was in his patrol car when he became involved in a long-running car chase on I-20 that wound up in the Five Points area of Columbia.
Once in Five Points, the driver of the fleeing car got out of his car and began firing at Groubert and another trooper in the parking lot of the Wells Fargo bank, which had not yet opened for the day. The troopers got out of their cars and returned fire, wounding the gunman, who is now in state prison serving a 25-year sentence.
In the video of Groubert shooting Jones, as Jones turns and reaches into the vehicle get his wallet, Groubert is seen suddenly running in front of his car, drawing his weapon and opening fire.
PTSD is generally thought of as a group of symptoms that can cause severe psychological upsets in people after they have undergone a traumatic event. The diagnosis is commonly associated with war veterans.
Since the Jones shooting, Groubert has been working as a truck driver.
In November, he and his wife were charged with shoplifting items at the Walmart in Northeast Richland, deputies said.
A judge placed Groubert on house arrest for the misdemeanor charge but allowed him to leave home for work, church, court and medical appointments.