Autopsy ruling keeps public in dark
by Staff Reports | July 26, 2014 8:26 am
Last Updated: July 25, 2014 at 10:28 pm
In light of the recent S.C. Supreme Court ruling in Perry v. Bullock, I’ve decided to weigh in on the matter, as I’m the guy whose reporting was the catalyst for the case. I also wanted to clear up a few things, add some context and pose a few questions.
From November 2005 to November 2011, I worked for The Sumter Item. I resigned as senior staff writer to be a stay at home dad. I now work part-time for The Manning Times and do freelance work as well.
Not one single press outlet in the state bothered to contact me, which I found odd, as I was a co-plaintiff, along with my former employer, Osteen Publishing.
It’s not sour grapes, I assure you. We lost, after all, and I greatly respect and admire Hubert Osteen for a multitude of reasons. At any rate, this is what happened:
Early on Sept. 28, 2010, there was a carjacking in Sumter in a neighborhood off Alice Drive, a busy thoroughfare. About two hours later, shortly after 9 a.m., two city police officers encountered Aaron Jacobs, 25, walking along Patriot Parkway, another busy road about five or six miles away.
Police said Jacobs fit the description of the carjacking suspect and stopped to question him. Some sort of confrontation ensued. Police said Jacobs resisted a weapons pat down and one of the officers grabbed his shirt, which came off as he was fleeing the scene.
The two officers said they saw a gun tucked in the waistband of Jacobs’ pants, and as he was running away, he pulled the gun and turned toward them. One of the officers opened fire, pulling the trigger nine times.
The city used fire trucks to shut down Patriot Parkway. Officials refused to release the names of the officers involved, citing an unspecified threat against them. (I later learned neither SLED nor the sheriff’s office were investigating any such threat.) Although we all know SLED investigates officer-involved shootings, the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office actually authored an incident report, but not as an investigation of any sort. The deputy police chief — now Chief Russell Roark — asked Sheriff Anthony Dennis to omit the names of the officers involved and Dennis complied. (Dennis later released a complete and unredacted supplemental report to me with the officers’ names.)
Reggie Lloyd, who was director of SLED at the time, came to town and a press conference was held. Lloyd gave me his cell number and told me not to hesitate to call.
Fast forward to summer 2011. Third Circuit Solicitor Chip Finney had cleared the two officers involved in the shooting, deeming it justified. After many, many phone conversations and several e-mails with Lloyd, he agreed to release the entire SLED file on the shooting, and on June 22, 2011, I drove to headquarters and was given a fat envelope containg about 60 or 70 pages.
At the end of the file was the autopsy report, which showed Jacobs was shot twice in the back of the head and twice in the back.
If the former director of our state’s top law enforcement agency — and a former U.S. Attorney and circuit court judge — recognized the autopsy report to be a public record, how can our highest court take an opposite stance?
If I had been a defense attorney, as our solicitor used to be, I would’ve had a field day with the other reports in the file, which showed:
– No conclusive gunshot residue on Jacobs’ hands.
– Both officers gave their statements two days after the shooting. The statements were nearly identical.
– The second officer who said he didn’t fire his gun wasn’t tested for GSR. The officer who fired nine shots didn’t test positively for GSR.
– A gun police said belonged to Jacobs was found 39 feet from his body and the locking mechanism for the magazine was broken.
– The bullets removed from Jacobs didn’t conclusively match up with the officer’s weapon.
And there was indeed some medical history in the report. Jacobs, the autopsy report said, had an enlarged heart — easy enough to black out with a marker as I recall that was the only mention of his medical history. One line in a four or five page report. Jacobs also had marijuana in his system and a bag of it in his pocket. Is it possible he was trying to throw away his weed while fleeing and it was mistaken for a gun? Does anyone think it’s reasonable for someone to pull a gun on two cops over a bag of weed?
I tracked down an eyewitness from one of the reports. He told me this: “I didn’t see no gun, he ain’t pulled no gun. Man, he got out of that shirt and took off running.”
No gun. Not in his waistband, not in his hands. Which is troubling enough for a reporter to hear. Without the autopsy report, however, the picture was incomplete.
Here’s my takeaway from all of this: In December 2010, a Richland County teenager was arrested and charged with the carjacking. So police stopped the wrong person. Were the police within their rights to stop Jacobs? Sure they were. And if you pull a gun on cops — really anyone these days — all bets are off. But they stopped the wrong person, period, and it’s unknown if Jacobs actually pulled a gun. Why was the Sumter Police Department adamant about refusing to name the officers involved? Does it seem likely that a person fleeing police — especially someone with a drug charge in his past, as Jacobs’ record showed, and therefore familiar with law enforcement — would turn to aim a gun at police as he’s running away? Is that even physically possible? Did Jacobs’ enlarged heart factor into his death? Of course not. He was shot four times.
His medical history was a moot point.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that The Sumter Item sued Sumter County Coroner Bill Gamble in 1989 to get an autopsy report and a circuit court judge ordered Gamble to release the report.
So we lost, and that doesn’t bode well for the press or the public. Nonetheless, I salute Hubert Osteen for standing on principle and fighting the good fight. I salute Reggie Lloyd for following through with a promise he made to me, and I salute the lone dissenter, Justice Pleicones, whose display of common sense is unfortunately the exception and not the rule.