The Aiken Standard and WRDW News-12 will go to court and fight an attempt to block the release of a dash-cam video reportedly showing a North Augusta Public Safety officer shooting and killing a man in February 2014.
The newspaper and television station have agreed to share the expense of challenging a motion filed last month by an attorney representing former North Augusta Public Safety officer Justin Craven. The ex parte motion to intervene was filed with the Edgefield County Clerk of Court late Wednesday by media law attorney Taylor M. Smith IV.
Craven’s lawyer, Jack Swerling, filed the original motion on April 20, asking a South Carolina Circuit Court judge to prohibit the release of any dash-cam video on the grounds that it should only be viewed in a courtroom so as not to influence any prospective jurors before Craven’s trial.
“Denying the release of this video is simply ludicrous – especially considering recent national events involving slayings by police,” said Aiken Standard Editor Tim O’Briant. “The City of North Augusta refuses to turn it over, SLED and the prosecutor will not budge, and now the defense attorney is trying to cover the City and the state’s refusal to follow the Freedom of Information Act based on a half-baked, ‘fair-trial’ argument. The public has a right to see this video, and we felt it was time to take it to court.”
O’Briant said it was unclear when a hearing might be scheduled for arguments on the matter.
On Feb. 9, 2014, Craven reportedly tried to initiate a traffic stop on Knox Avenue in North Augusta on suspicion of a man driving under the influence. Ernest Satterwhite Sr., 68, continued to drive, and a 9-mile pursuit ensued. The low-speed chase ended in Edgefield County in front of the Rose Drive home of the driver.
According to the Edgefield County Sheriff’s Office, Craven approached the driver’s side of the vehicle, then shot “three or four” times into the vehicle and stated “the suspect grabbed my gun.”
That incident was reportedly all caught on the North Augusta officer’s dash-cam.
The S.C. State Law Enforcement Division charged Craven in February 2015 with discharging a firearm into a vehicle while occupied. Craven was arrested and released on a $20,000 bond. Before that, an Edgefield County grand jury refused to lodge voluntary manslaughter charges and opted for the lesser charge of misconduct in office. Craven is expected to face both charges at trial later this year.
The harm of people seeing the video, said Craven’s attorney, is that videos involving actions taken by police officers are “repeatedly played and commented on” by people once the video is released to the public. This release, according to the motion, potentially can “involve solidifying prospective juror’s opinions about the merits of the case both in favor or against a defendant.”
Bill Rogers, the executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, took issue with the motion and said last week that dash-cam videos are important because “it gives the public oversight of what’s going on.”
Rogers said he didn’t “buy” that the video would prejudice the trial, and that the motion is “insufficient” given that both the defense and the prosecutor have already seen the video. “The only people that haven’t seen it is the public,” Rogers said.
The Aiken Standard filed Freedom of Information Act requests, also known as FOIAs, last month with multiple agencies in an effort to view the shooting incident.
SLED and the 11th Circuit Solicitor’s Office responses stated they will wait to make a determination on the FOIA request until Judge Thomas Russo, of the 11th Judicial Circuit Court, rules on the motion filed by Craven’s attorney.
The North Augusta Public Safety Department and the City of North Augusta earlier refused to release the dash-cam video until Craven’s latest felony charge is decided in court.
Craven has since been suspended as an officer, but remains a North Augusta City employee in the building standards department.
The City of North Augusta agreed to pay nearly $1.2 million in March to Satterwhite’s estate to settle a wrongful-death suit filed by his brother.
Maayan Schechter is the local government reporter with Aiken Standard. Follow her on Twitter @MaayanSchechter.