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Why South Carolina indicted three white police officers in four months

A sign welcomes visitors at the Eutawville, S.C., Town Hall on Dec. 4. (Randall Hill/Reuters)
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In South Carolina, a state with a long and deep history of racial discrimination against African Americans, three white law enforcement officers have been indicted in recent months on charges stemming from incidents in which they shot — and in two cases, killed — unarmed black men.

So what happened? How did officers in the Palmetto State wind up being indicted while cops in New York and Ferguson, Mo., did not?

The broader national climate of scrutiny surrounding Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and Eric Garner’s in New York probably played a role.

“Each prosecutor will take whatever stance he or she thinks is appropriate,” said University of South Carolina professor Geoffrey Alpert, who studies the use of force by law enforcement. “They are political people for the most part, they have to understand that the nature of their decision is going to have a huge impact.”

[South Carolina police officer will be charged with murder after the shooting]

Indictments in the three cases came in the last four months. The most recent was delivered on Wednesday, when a grand jury charged a former police chief, Richard Combs, with murder. The indictment came nearly four years after Combs shot and killed an unarmed black man, Bernard Bailey, outside the Eutawville, S.C., police station.

Combs, who at the time of the shooting was the department’s only officer, had been charged in 2013 with misconduct. But when a judge threw out his “stand your ground” argument, that he had justifiably used deadly force, a prosecutor asked the grand jury to consider a more serious charge.

Combs’ lawyer has accused prosecutor David Pascoe, a Democratic politician with a reputation for being “tough” and “aggressive,” of caving to national pressures.

“He’s trying to make it racial because his timing is perfect,” attorney John O’Leary told the Associated Press. “He’s got all the national issues going on, so they want to drag him [Combs] in and say, look what a great community we are here, because we’re going to put a police officer who was doing his job in jail for 30 years. That’s wrong. That’s completely wrong.”

While the Bailey family lawyer has said that he was told months ago that a murder indictment was likely, it did not occur in a vacuum: The final decision came on the same day a grand jury in New York declined to indict a white NYPD officer in the “chokehold death” of Garner, an African American from Staten Island.

And it came a week after a grand jury in Missouri declined to indict white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Brown, an African American teenager.

“We don’t know what brand of justice they serve in Ferguson. We don’t know what brand of justice they’re serving in New York City,” Carl B. Grant, an attorney for Bailey’s family, told the AP. “But here in South Carolina, we believe in the jury system, and we believe in what the grand jury has brought as a charge with this indictment.”

In a second case in South Carolina, a grand jury indicted North Augusta police officer Justin Craven on misdemeanor charges in the death of 68-year-old Earnest Satterwhite Sr., who was shot through the door of his car after a chase in February.

Craven, who had suspected Satterwhite of drunk driving, was not initially charged in the incident and was only reassigned to a desk job in September, after charges were filed. Prosecutors sought voluntary manslaughter charges from the grand jury, but the panel of jurors decided on a lesser misdemeanor, a decision that angered and puzzled some observers.

“It diminishes the nature of the violation of the death; this man’s life is only worth a misdemeanor,” South Carolina state Rep. Joe Neal told the Associated Press in September.

In both cases, the officers were from relatively small police jurisdictions. According to Alpert, if prosecutors are hesitant to bring charges against officers in police departments they rely on for major prosecutions, that is less likely to be the case with smaller departments. And, Alpert said, it’s easier for a prosecutor to argue that bad recruiting and training procedures in smaller departments produced bad cops. That, he said, makes it easier to present a convincing case to a grand jury.

“Particularly in these smaller towns, they hire officers who have been released or have had trouble in other jurisdictions,” said Alpert, who has advised grand juries on how to determine whether police have used force appropriately. “And it’s not just because they don’t rely on them as much, but the training isn’t as good, the whole management probably isn’t as good. They don’t have the funds to maintain the things that larger departments do.”

Still, it took six months for a grand jury to indict in the Craven case and nearly four years for an indictment in the Bailey case.

It’s no coincidence that these indictments have coincided with renewed national attention on excessive use of force.

Recent controversies have brought prosecutors under greater scrutiny for their role in pursuing charges for law enforcement officers — especially in cases that involve the use of excessive force against African Americans by white officers.

“Grand juries are certainly part of our American criminal justice system, but how they are administered is so different,” he said. “It depends on the prosecutor what information he presents. Grand juries are political entities, but they can serve as civilian review boards for these shootings if done properly.”

A third indictment in South Carolina did not go to a grand jury, but both the incident and the charges came at a high point of scrutiny of police-involved shooting incidents.

State trooper Sean Groubert’s dashboard camera captured footage of the officer firing on a black man he had stopped for a seat belt violation Sept. 4. Levar Jones, who had exited the vehicle, was reaching into the car to retrieve his driver’s license. Jones was wounded but not killed.

“What did I do? … I just got my license, you said get my license,” Jones screamed in the video. “Why did you shoot me?”

The footage went viral and became a national story. Groubert was fired and later charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.

According to the arrest warrant, Groubert “did without justification unlawfully shoot Levar Jones which produced great bodily injury or was likely to cause great bodily injury. Audio and visual recordings, as well as written statements, obtained are further evidence to indicate the shooting incident was without justification.”

Groubert pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

“Law enforcement, due to the nature of their jobs, are given wide berth,” state Rep. Tommy Pope, who served 13 years as a chief prosecutor, told the AP. “But you’re sworn to certain things, and when you go outside those requirements, you can’t hide behind your badge and gun.”

According to the Post and Courier, by mid-November, there had been 37 officer-involved shootings in the state in 2014. Groubert’s case was the only one to result in an officer’s arrest.