Crime & Courts

One year later: Case of SC trooper shooting of African-American motorist unresolved, video part of a national conversation

Sean Groubert
Sean Groubert

A year after then-state trooper Lance Corporal Sean Groubert shot and wounded an unarmed African-American man he had stopped outside Columbia for a seat belt violation, the police dash-cam video that captured the incident is still riveting.

Groubert fired several times, hitting motorist Levar Edward Jones, now 36, in the hip, as Jones, standing outside his vehicle, reached back inside to get his driver’s license from his wallet.

The video also captured audio of the bleeding Jones, asking Groubert in puzzled, pained tones, “What did I do, sir?” and “Why did you, why did you shoot me?” Jones was lying on the ground at the time.

Although it has been a year, a trial date for Groubert’s case has not been scheduled.

The trooper’s dash-cam video provided graphic evidence about what happened on that day, Sept. 4, 2014 – evidence so strong the South Carolina Department of Public Safety fired Groubert. Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson had Groubert indicted on a charge of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.

The video has become part of an ongoing national conversation on the use of lethal force by police, especially against African-Americans, in a year that has been filled with high-profile cases. Groubert, now 32, is white.

The timing of the S.C. case was important. A white officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and that city’s violent eruption, had happened just weeks before, on Aug. 9, 2014.

In that case, a video taken at the time only portrayed part of the Ferguson incident and implied to many the officer had been at fault. However, a grand jury investigation and a full FBI investigation concluded there was insufficient evidence to conclude the officer acted improperly.

“The (Groubert) video was very powerful. Just a year ago, we were in the immediate days of Ferguson. The focus on police was starting to get a lot of interest,” said University of South Carolina Law School Assistant Professor Seth Stoughton, who has been a police officer.

“The Trooper Groubert video played into that and certainly emphasized the importance of camera footage in incidents like this,” Stoughton said. “This is the type of incident that if you just had the officer’s verbal description and that of Mr. Jones, who thankfully survived, you might say it was a mistake, but it was a reasonable mistake.

“The video in this case really drove home the importance of objective evidence in situations that can be incredibly ambiguous,” Stoughton said. “One of the important lessons in this video is that these situations are not all close calls.”

In the Columbia case, quick action by law officers to charge Groubert and the decision to make public the dash-cam video contributed to the lack of protests and other disturbances that have rocked communities elsewhere in the wake of similar shootings.

Despite such seemingly clear evidence, no trial date has been set.

Groubert’s lawyer, former 5th Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese, said this week, “The charges against Mr. Groubert are still pending, and beyond that, I cannot comment further.”

Johnson, the solicitor, told The State in an email, “The matter is still pending.” He had no other comment. However, Johnson has frequently talked of large backlogs in criminal cases.

Todd Rutherford, the Columbia lawyer and state lawmaker who represented Jones, also said Johnson has a crowded docket to contend with and he’s not surprised no trial date has been set.

“In Richland County, it would be odd for you to get court time before a year is out,” Rutherford said. “There are a lot of big cases, and not enough court time.”

Rutherford, who no longer represents Jones, got a $285,000 settlement in the case from the state’s Insurance Reserve Fund. Normally, it takes months or more than a year for that fund to pay out an insurance claim. But in this case, the fund paid out quickly.

Groubert’s initial version of events, given to law enforcement, painted Jones in a far more threatening light than the video showed him to be.

A onetime S.C. Trooper of the Year, Groubert faces 20 years in prison if convicted of wrongfully shooting Jones.

Groubert’s lawyer, Giese, has said publicly that Groubert is innocent. “We believe the shooting was justified. We look forward to our day in court.”

Supporters of police in these cases often make the point officers put their lives on the line every day and must be alert to any danger. In recent weeks, for example, a Texas deputy was shot and killed while he was refueling at a gas station. In the Chicago area, police are hunting three men who shot and killed an officer earlier this week.

Although Giese has not said what defense he will use, others have publicly speculated Groubert will use some sort of defense based on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In 2012, Groubert was involved in an incident that began with a lengthy car chase on I-20 and ended with an unexpected shootout in Five Points.

In that incident, the driver of the fleeing car began firing at Groubert and another trooper once he was in Five Points. The troopers 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 back to his car to get his wallet, Groubert is seen suddenly running in front of his car, drawing his weapon and opening fire.

“It’s a logical defense for what happened, and a reasonable one in some cases – but there has to be a valid basis,” said Joe McCulloch, a Columbia lawyer who has speculated that was the cause of Groubert’s otherwise inexplicable reaction.

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.