Justin Craven, a former South Carolina police officer who killed an unarmed black motorist in 2014 was sentenced to only three years of probation and 80 hours of community service on Monday. Craven accepted a plea agreement that dropped a felony charge for his use of lethal force.
In February 2014, 25-year-old North Augusta Public Safety Officer Craven shot and killed 68-year-old Ernest Satterwhite after a 13-minute low-speed chance that ended in Satterwhite’s driveway.
Dashboard camera footage revealed a brief struggle as Craven ran to Satterwhite’s vehicle when it stopped and stuck his arm and gun through the window. Satterwhite appeared to have pushed Craven’s arm away before Craven pulls his gun out of the window and fires his weapon at Satterwhite several times.
According to Craven’s attorney Jack Swerling, the car chase reached 100 mph at one point. Because of his erratic driving and blood-alcohol level of 0.15 percent (almost twice the legal limit) Satterwhite had put the public at risk.
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.
State Rep. Joe Neal (D) saw the video evidence from the incident and said that the officer appeared to be “gun happy.”
According to Swerling, Craven feared for his life because Satterwhite had tried to grab the gun from his hand.
“[Craven’s] 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,” said Swerling.
“He runs up and opens fire. How is that different from North Charleston? It is exactly the same thing,” Neal 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.
The Associated Press sued the State Law Enforcement Division after their request for the dash cam footage in 2014 was denied.
In a civil case, North Augusta settled a lawsuit with Satterwhite’s family for $1.2 million.
While a prosecutor originally sought a voluntary manslaughter charge for
Craven, he was only able to secure a grand jury indictment for another felony, for firing into a vehicle while it was occupied.
Without the plea deal, Craven most certainly would have faced prison time. The felony misconduct charge carried 10 years and a $1,000 fine. After his plea, he still could have faced a year in jail.
“We couldn’t ask for a better outcome as far as the sentence is concerned,” said Craven’s attorney. “[He] got probation, no house arrest, and he’s pretty much free to go live his life.”
“What he did was murder this man, and the judicial system just let him get away with it,” said Rep. Neal, who called the sentences “a slap on the wrist and a wink and a nod.”
According to Swerling, his client has no intention of becoming a police officer again and regrets that Satterwhite was killed.