A former South Carolina state trooper who shot an unarmed motorist in 2014 was sentenced to prison on Tuesday in a hearing wrought with emotion, apologies and frustration for some.
Sean Groubert, 34, pleaded guilty in March 2016 to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. More than a year later in the case that made national headlines, Circuit Judge Casey Manning handed him a 12-year sentence, suspended to five years with three years probation. He faced up to 20 years.
“I made the world’s biggest mistake the day I stopped you, and I owe you the world’s biggest apology,” Groubert said to Levar Jones in court before the sentencing, his voice quivering at times. “I’ve searched in vain for three years to find words to express to you how sorry I am, but they don’t exist.”
Groubert’s apology came during a sentencing hearing that revealed something not heard before in the case: That Groubert might have been motivated, in part, by racism.
‘A racial component’?
Groubert shot Jones at a gas station on Broad River Road during a traffic stop Sept. 4, 2014, and was fired and charged shortly thereafter.
The shooting gained national attention because Groubert is white and Jones is African-American. It came just weeks after a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., fatally shot an African-American teenager named Michael Brown, sparking weeks of unrest there.
“At first glance, you don’t want to think that this has a racial component to it,” Senior Assistant Solicitor Luck Campbell said before telling Manning that Groubert, in recorded jailhouse telephone conversations, referred to the jail guards as “black (expletives).” Prosecutors did not play the recordings in court.
“I’ve never in my life encountered racism in my life until I moved to South Carolina,” Campbell quoted Groubert as saying during another phone conversation. “It’s like, even up in Ohio, even if you go into a project where it’s predominately minorities and blacks, they don’t have that chip on their shoulder.”
Also in the recorded phone calls, Groubert blamed Jones for the shooting, prosecutors told Manning.
But in court, Groubert assured Jones he did nothing wrong the day of the shooting, saying, “I screwed up.”
PTSD from previous shooting
Prosecutors said Groubert pulled Jones over that afternoon for what Groubert said was a seatbelt violation.
During the traffic stop, Jones got out of his Dodge Durango and, when asked by Groubert for his license, patted his back pockets before going back to the vehicle to get his wallet.
Jones exited the car again with his wallet, which Groubert mistook for a firearm, prosecutors said. He fired four shots, hitting Jones once in the left hip.
Defense attorneys said Groubert’s reaction to Jones jumping into his car stemmed from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder related to an August 2012 shootout with a suspect in Columbia’s Five Points after a high-speed chase.
Groubert sobbed quietly while dashcam video of the 2012 incident was played in court.
At the end of the video, after the ordeal was over, Groubert is heard getting back into his patrol car and crying.
‘The biggest mistake of my life’
Because Groubert has spent the past 17 months in jail, that time will be applied to the five-year prison term. Should he violate his probation, he would have to serve the remainder of the 12 years.
A psychiatrist testified Groubert exhibited symptoms of PTSD from the 2012 incident, during which the suspect shot at Groubert and other troopers.
“He blamed himself,” Dr. Donna Maddox said. “He thought his partner was shot and he thought he had been responsible.”
Groubert told Manning he experienced a flashback when Jones quickly re-entered his SUV.
“When I turned around, looking for the gun I was sure was there on the ground, I was faced with a wallet,” he said. “At that exact moment, my heart sunk. It was at that exact moment when I knew that I had made the biggest mistake of my life.”
‘I’m just not the same person’
In asking Manning for the maximum 20-year sentence, Jones said he is uncomfortable going out in public and driving since the shooting.
“I’m just not the same person that I used to be,” Jones said.
Being around police officers also makes him uncomfortable, regardless of the officer’s race, he said.
“A trooper shot me over a seat belt,” he said. “I was not resisting. I was being extremely compliant. ... I was acting the way that I was raised by my family, by my church, by my community.”
Groubert’s wife, Morgan Groubert, told Manning the couple had a daughter who died in 2007.
“We were fortunate enough to bring another daughter into our lives,” she said of their second daughter, born while Groubert has been in jail. “He has yet to have a relationship with her. He missed her birth. He’s missed her growing up.”
Groubert’s mother, Janet, told the court she and her husband have spent part of their retirement savings on their son’s legal bills and to support his wife and daughter, for whom he was the sole provider.
“Nobody needs to fear he’s out roaming the roads (as an officer),” she said in arguing for leniency. “That will never happen.”
‘America in 2017’
Jones declined to speak with reporters after the hearing. Groubert’s attorneys also declined to comment. His mother told reporters while leaving the courthouse, “We’re very sorry it happened.”
Friends of Jones said they were disappointed with the judge’s sentence and that they did not believe Groubert’s apology was sincere.
“Of course you’re gonna cry and do whatever it takes to get a lower sentence,” said Cherelle Moss, 29. “(Jones) took a long time learning to walk. He can’t even walk straight.”
Karil Parker, 34, another friend, said Groubert’s comments in the jailhouse phone calls make her think his apology was not sincere. Expressing her frustration with the sentence, Parker invoked the deaths of unarmed African-American men killed by police, including Walter Scott, who was fatally shot in the back by former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager in 2015.
“I live in America in 2017,” she said. “Nothing is surprising regarding sentencing of police officers when it comes to these issues.”
“It’s much more than what Michael Slager got,” she said. Slager has pleaded guilty but has yet to be sentenced in federal court.
“It’s much more than the man that shot Mike Brown got. It’s much more than we got for Eric Garner. So we should be happy, I guess.”