A police officer was justified in fatally shooting a 19-year-old assault suspect in downtown Greenville in November, 13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins said Tuesday.
Wilkins, after reviewing the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s report on the shooting, said the officer didn’t use excessive force that would have warranted criminal charges against him.
The officer hasn’t been identified, but is a veteran who has returned to his full duties, police officials said.
An attorney for family members of the victim, Senovio Pedro Maldonado, said they respect Wilkins’ decision but disagree “with some aspects of it.”
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“What we’re concerned about is that this was a lethal situation and why didn’t they use a Taser, why didn’t they tackle this fellow,” said David Armstrong, a Greenville attorney representing Maldonado’s family. “We feel that the entire situation was too much force under the circumstances.”
He declined to specify what aspects of Wilkins’ decision the family disagrees with, saying a lawsuit is likely.
Maldonado was the father of an 18-month-old daughter, Armstrong said.
Meeting with reporters in his office at the Greenville County Courthouse, Wilkins said he got SLED’s file on the case three weeks ago and had two attorneys in his office review the file independently of each other.
Wilkins also reviewed the file and the three met to discuss the case before reaching their conclusions, Wilkins said.
The witnesses closest to the incident gave consistent statements that the officers ordered Maldonado repeatedly to drop a baseball bat he had used to hit another man in the head, Wilkins said.
Despite the commands, Maldonado began approaching the officers and held the bat above his head in a threatening manner, the solicitor said.
Some witnesses said it appeared Maldonado dropped the bat before he was shot, but Wilkins said the witnesses closest to the shooting agreed with the officers’ version of events.
“At the time the officer shot, the bat was in his (Maldonado’s) hand, held in an aggressive manager,” Wilkins said.
“He willfully disobeyed the commands of the two officers” to stop, Wilkins said.
“The officers certainly were justified in believing that their lives or the lives of other individuals could possibly be in danger,” Wilkins said.
Greenville Police Chief Terri Wilfong told GreenvilleOnline.com that officers, based on national police guidelines, are trained “to stop the target, stop the threat.”
“You’ve got somebody that has what’s considered a dangerous instrument -- it’s a baseball bat,” Wilfong said. “He’s already assaulted somebody by beating them in the head and upon the body with a baseball bat to cause harm.”
“That was seen by many witnesses which is why the officers intervened, and then he, in turn, came at them with a bat,” she said.
Wilfong said she expects her department’s internal investigation to be finished soon.
The downtown incident started after Maldonado was denied entry to a Brown Street club because he didn’t have an ID, Wilkins said.
Maldonado pulled out of a parking lot and onto Brown Street when his car brushed two pedestrians, Wilkins said. One of the pedestrians made a gesture -- “something to the effect, ‘What’s going on?’” Wilkins said.
Maldonado stopped the car in the middle of the street and got out with a dark-colored baseball bat, Wilkins said. A passenger, who wasn’t identified, remained in the car, the solicitor said.
Maldonado hit one of the pedestrians in the head with the bat, he said.
About the same time, at Brown and East North streets, a sergeant with the city Police Department had made a traffic stop, Wilkins said. Two other officers were assisting and they were notified of the baseball-bat incident, he said.
“When they realized that Mr. Maldonado had struck somebody in the head, or was engaging somebody in the head, they ran towards Mr. Maldonado...with their weapons drawn and yelled at him to stop, put the bat down,” Wilkins said.
“According to numerous witnesses, he turned, he approached the two officers. He was within a maximum of 6 feet, maybe less than 6 feet, and one of the officers fired two shots, killing Mr. Maldonado.”
Wilkins said there was no surveillance camera footage of the shooting, which occurred in the early morning hours of Nov. 18. None of those involved knew each other, Wilkins said.
An autopsy showed Maldonado had a blood alcohol level of .14, or nearly twice the legal limit to drive in South Carolina, and other substances in his system, Wilkins said. Witnesses said he had been drinking before coming downtown, the solicitor said.
Witnesses fell into three categories, ranked by distance from the shooting, Wilkins said.
The solicitor said the closest included the man hit with the bat, the passenger in Maldonado’s car and the two officers.
Another set of witnesses included people who were leaving a restaurant and were about 10 to 15 yards from the incident, Wilkins said.
A third set of witnesses included those who were 50 yards away in a smoking area near a tavern, Wilkins said.
Investigators interviewed all of the witnesses and took statements to “figure out exactly what we believe happened,” the solicitor said.
Some witnesses were interviewed two or three times, he said.
One individual, among the farthest away near the tavern, turned on a cell-phone camera, but only after the shooting had occurred, Wilkins said.
Statements from witnesses near the tavern differed from those who were closer and “we certainly took that into consideration,” Wilkins said.
“But taking a totality of the circumstances,” and looking at the officers’ actions objectively, “we have come to the conclusion that the officers were justified in the force that they used under the particular circumstances,” Wilkins said.
The second officer said he was bracing to shoot but didn’t because the other officer fired, Wilkins said.
Armstong, the Maldonado family attorney, questioned why the officers didn’t use a Taser or other non-deadly force to stop Maldonado since he was 5-foot-5 and weighed 151 pounds.
“If you have somebody that is creating a disturbance or whatever, why don’t you tackle the guy,” Armstrong said, “or more importantly, use non-lethal tools at your hand?”
Wilkins said he met with Maldonado’s family Monday to tell him he wasn’t filing criminal charges against police.
SLED completed “a very thorough investigation” and provided him with the complete file, Wilkins said.
“It’s an absolute tragedy,” he told reporters.
“Nobody wins in this scenario,” he said. “However, my job as your elected solicitor is to review the facts as we have and analyze them under the law.”