A South Carolina prosecutor’s office has released dash-camera video of the September 4 shooting by Police Officer Sean Groubert of Levar Edward in a gas station parking lot. It appears that Edward was in good faith simply complying with Groubert’s demands for identification, but in a manner that led Groubert to believe that Edward was lunging for a weapon.
The good news: the shooting victim, Edward, was not killed. The bad news: just about everything else.
Here’s the dash-camera footage:
Here’s a brief textual description of events as I saw them, for those who may not be in a position to watch the video at the moment:
Officer Groubert had confronted Edward over a seat belt violation, engaging with Edward just as he steps from his white SUV. Groubert asks to see Edward’s driver’s license; Edward hesitates a moment, then turns with some speed and leans back into the passenger compartment of the SUV.
My guess is that Groubert had this “dives back into the vehicle” movement mentally pre-programmed as an imminent deadly force threat. If this is the case, only he would be able to explain why; perhaps it was the result of his training or on-the-job experiences, or knowledge of other officers encountering a similar action and suddenly finding themselves facing an armed and dangerous suspect.
In any case, at about 0:44 Groubert immediately presents the gun and begins aggressively ordering Edward to “get out of the car!” Edward turns back to Groubert to comply–and that’s exactly the movement Groubert must have imagined Edward would make if he was turning to engage the officer with a weapon.
Groubet fires two rapid shots, even as he moves laterally relative to Edward, while Edward is standing in the door of the SUV. Edward grabs his groin, likely indicating a low hit. (Low hits are very common when shooting under stress, as the shooter tends to overpower the trigger and drive down the muzzle of the gun.) In this case it likely saved Edward’s life and Groubert from a murder charge.
Edward stumbles away from the SUV, turning to face Groubert, his hands still at his groin. Groubert fires a third shot and Edward’s arms fly straight up into a surrender position, even as a fourth shot breaks. At this point Edward appears to fall down in a sitting position, and Groubert moves in and begins typical “secure the suspect” actions (“hands behind your back,” etc.)
Edward is alert and cogent, and immediately starts asking why Groubert shot him, saying that he was only trying to comply with Groubert’s orders. Within seconds Groubert’s tone becomes conciliatory in tone (too late, of course), and he tells Edward he’s called for medical care.
As an aside, at the distance separating these two men all four of Groubert’s shots fired should have–or, at least, could have–formed a group no large than a palm centered over Leval’s chest, in which case the wounds would almost certainly have been fatal. Remember, Trayvon Martin was killed by a single 9mm round to the center-chest. Instead, we can only be certain that one of those four shots actually struck Edward, and not with the placement necessary to have a debilitating effect.
Officer Has Been Fired, Arrested, Charged with Aggravated Assault
Groubert was arrested and charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, which carries a potential 20 year sentence. He has been fired, and is currently free on $75,000 bail.
Barney Giese, the officer’s defense attorney, will of course argue that in the totality of the circumstances Groubert reasonably perceived an imminent threat of death or grave bodily harm, thus justifying the shooting.
It’s important to remember that reasonable errors are allowed under the law of self-defense. The question is whether Groubert’s conduct was that of a reasonable and prudent person under the same or similar circumstances, possessing the same or similar capabilities, training, and knowledge.
(For example, the situation would be an entirely different one if Groubert had pulled Edward over on a felony warrant stating Edward was armed and dangerous. That is not, of course, the case here, as Edward was pulled over for a seatbelt violation.)
On the other hand, if Groubert’s training or experience reinforced in his mind that motions of the type and speed made by Edward are to be interpreted as a suspect reaching for a weapon, that would obviously contribute the the reasonableness of Groubert’s conduct.
Did Edward’s Conduct Contribute to Groubert’s Perception of Danger?
An important factor that may help defense counsel Giese spin a favorable narrative for the jury is the swiftness with which Edward turned back into his vehicle–some might say lunged back into the vehicle. Doing so is not, of course, a crime, especially when it appears it was in direct response to Groubert’s demand for identification. Nevertheless, it seems very much identical to the motion a dangerous suspect would make if reaching for a weapon.
Also favorable to Groubert, I think, is his demeanor immediately before and after the shooting, in which he demonstrated no unusually aggressive conduct or apparent malice. It was, to all appearances, a routine traffic stop until Groubert perceived—reasonably or not, the jury will decide—Edward lunging back into his vehicle for a weapon.
As an aside, when I’m personally pulled over by the police—which pretty much only happens when I’m on the motorcycle, not sure why—I don’t make any movement until instructed to do so; then, I verbally state the movement I plan to make and obtain consent for that movement, and execute that movement with deliberation.
Officer: “License and registration.”
Me: “Sir, my wallet is in this tank bag. Is it OK if I retrieve it?”
Officer: “Do what you need to do.”
Me: [SLOWLY unzips tankbag, lifts flap ALL the way up so contents are fully exposed to the officer’s view, retrieves necessary documents from waterproof bag, hands to officer.]
It’s just the prudent thing to do, I think.
The Prosecution’s Burden of Persuasion, Prospects for “Compromise Verdict”
In any case, it will be under such circumstances that Groubert’s defense counsel will seek to build and sustain a reasonable doubt that Groubert was acting in self-defense. If the prosecution cannot meet its burden of persuasion to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury will be instructed to acquit.
This case is likely to be perceived by the jury as amenable to a “compromise verdict.” In such cases a jury may not be able to reach unanimous agreement to convict on the aggravated assault charge, but instead come to an agreement on some lesser included charge. There’s no way to predict how amenable they might be to such an outcome, of course, without having heard the actual narratives as they’ll be made in court.
Andrew F. Branca is an MA lawyer and the author of the seminal book “The Law of Self Defense, 2nd Edition,” available at the Law of Self Defense blog (autographed copies available) and Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle). He also holds Law of Self Defense Seminars around the country, and provides free online self-defense law video lectures at the Law of Self Defense Institute and podcasts through iTunes, Stitcher, and elsewhere.DONATE
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