A white South Carolina police officer who was charged with a felony for shooting and killing a black driver at the end of a chase took a plea deal Monday and was sentenced to three years of probation.
Justin Craven, 27, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor misconduct in office, multiple media outlets reported. A prosecutor wanted the North Augusta police officer charged with voluntary manslaughter, which carries up to 30 years in prison, but a grand jury refused to indict Craven. He was later charged with a different felony.
Craven’s plea comes amid a nationwide debate over the use of force and how white police officers treat black people, fueled by high-profile incidents including the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Freddie Gray’s death after he was injured in a Baltimore police van.
The death of 68-year-old Ernest Satterwhite was captured on video from Craven’s dashboard camera. The Associated Press requested the footage nearly two years ago and eventually sued the State Law Enforcement Division, which refused to release the video until after Craven’s plea Monday.
The footage shows Craven run to Satterwhite’s car after the man stops at his home and stick a gun and both arms into the driver’s open window. A black arm is seen pushing back on the gun, and Craven pulls the weapon out of the window and fires several shots.
Craven feared for his life because Satterwhite was trying to grab his gun, Craven’s lawyer Jack Swerling said after the plea hearing.
“His mistake in judgment was approaching the car and getting too close. He had to make a split-second decision instead of like now, when everyone gets all the time they want to analyze it,” Swerling said.
Police experts recommend officers don’t charge into an unknown situation but instead stay behind cover in case a suspect is armed. No weapon was found in Satterwhite’s car. Others who have seen the video think Satterwhite might have been stunned that the officer pointed his gun at his head and just was swiping his arm in surprise.
“What he did was murder this man, and the judicial system just let him get away with it,” said state Rep. Joe Neal, a black Democrat from Hopkins who saw the video and has spent decades speaking out against racism in law enforcement and demanding accountability through data and police cameras.
A lawyer for Satterwhite’s family did not return a phone call. North Augusta paid the family nearly $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit.
The shooting happened after a 13-minute chase after Craven tried to pull Satterwhite over for drunken driving, chasing him from North Augusta all the way to Satterwhite’s home on a dirt road in adjoining Edgefield County. Most of the chase took place at slow speeds, with Satterwhite striking at least two cars and two mailboxes, although Swerling said it did reach 100 mph at one point. State police said Satterwhite had a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 percent – nearly twice the legal limit to drive.
Police records show Satterwhite had been arrested more than a dozen times on traffic violations during his life, including three times for fleeing police. However, there is no evidence he ever physically fought with officers.
The judge in the case told Craven he was giving the officer probation because the shooting wasn’t similar to other high-profile police killings like in North Charleston, where white officer Michael Slager is awaiting trial on a murder charge for killing an unarmed black man as he ran away from a traffic stop, the Aiken Standard reported.
Neal said the video shows him a “gun happy” officer. “He runs up and opens fire. How is that different from North Charleston? It is exactly the same thing,” Neal said.
A different grand jury indicted Craven on a felony charge of discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle. If convicted of that charge, Craven could have faced up to 10 years in prison.
Swerling said Craven regrets that Satterwhite died in the shooting and has no plans to be a police officer again.