Autopsy ruling keeps public in dark

by | July 26, 2014 8:26 am

Last Updated: July 25, 2014 at 10:28 pm

joe_perryIn 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.

comments » 4

  1. Comment by Barry Lee

    July 26, 2014 at 12:29

    I feel sadness that because you didn’t get what you wanted you decided to write an article that attempts to impugn the reputation of the 2 officers and the Police dept. There may well be facts of this case of which you are not aware.
    Policing is a difficult job these days, and especially in a place like Sumter, which has an increasingly violent gang problem and problems with other gun violence. Why people do the things they do in stressful situations can never be explained away. But you suggest that the victim would not have pulled a gun on 2 police officers to hide a bag of weed. I can tell you it has been done for less.
    The result of articles like this is that they create a more dangerous environment for our police to work in. They second guess themselves and may hesitate now just long enough to get themselves shot and killed.
    If you are armed and you try and resist police officers, you are to blame for anything that happens afterwards. Law abiding citizens do not resist pat downs and do not run from police. Try supporting them a little more and stop trying to come to conclusions that you cannot prove.

  2. Comment by Lyndsie

    July 27, 2014 at 11:13

    I completely disagree with the above comment! Police officers and government officials are more corrupt now then ever! I do NOT trust any officer of the law! I as an American Citizen have the right to refuse a pat down, especially without JUST cause! This young man happened to be black so he fit the description???…bull!! It’s because of citizens like you that officers and the government get away with all the grimey crap they do…because you still trust and put your faith in them. They are humans too…capaple of making the same wrong, misjudged, and heat of the moment decisions like any other human being…yet they can hide behind a badge. And Sumter in general is FULL of bull crap cops!

  3. Comment by Bernice

    July 27, 2014 at 12:36

    I used to live in the area. Cops are all the same. They jump to the wrong conclusions and innocent people are the ones who pay for their mistakes. Now I ask, who gets pat down the most and stopped. No brainer. But the cops in the south has jumped to many wrong conclusions that people of color are just plain in fear of their life. Won’t you be the same, if you turn the news EVERYDAY, and about how cops stop the wrong person. Most times the true innocent pays for a preconceived or prejudice views.

  4. Comment by Barry Lee

    July 27, 2014 at 17:39

    You will accuse me of being racist, but I’ll go ahead and say it. The reason that black men get pat downs more often is that, in the experience of the police, they are the ones committing the vast majority of the crimes they are fighting every day. If they get a description of a perp that describes him as a black male, would you have them stop a few white males just to even things up a little?
    That is silly. I admit that there will be bad apples in every organization and I guess it has always been that way. But I don’t fear them and I would hate to live in a world in which i have to tell my young son or daughter that he or she should not approach a police officer in uniform for help and that they are the bad guys.

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