COLUMBIA, SC — A former South Carolina Highway Patrol trooper facing criminal charges in connection with shooting a driver in the Columbia area may have had post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome from a prior shooting incident, a Columbia lawyer said Thursday.
“It’s a logical defense for what happened, and a reasonable one in some cases – but there has to be a valid basis,” said Joe McCulloch, who has handled numerous criminal cases.
McCulloch said that on Thursday morning, when he watched the dashcam video recording of former Lance Cpl. Sean Groubert shooting Levar Jones during a routine traffic stop for a seat belt violation, it looked like something had suddenly triggered an emotional reaction in Groubert.
Up to one point, the video shows, the Sept. 4 traffic stop proceeds normally. But then, as Jones – who had stepped out of his vehicle – begins to lean back into his car to get his driver’s license, Groubert suddenly yells, runs across the camera’s field of vision and starts firing his pistol as if he is in a firefight, McCulloch said.
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“Post-traumatic stress syndrome is not a myth – it’s a very tragic situation,” said McCulloch, who is not involved in Groubert’s case but is an acquaintance of his.
PTSD is generally thought of as a group of symptoms that can cause severe psychological upsets in people after they have undergone a traumatic event. The diagnosis is commonly associated with war veterans.
Groubert’s lawyer, Barney Giese, declined comment Thursday when asked about the possibility of PTSD or whether Groubert had received counseling after a previous shooting incident, a shootout in Five Points after a lengthy car chase that began on Interstate 20.
Also declining comment was 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, whose office is prosecuting the case. Lawyer Todd Rutherford, who represents Jones, could not be reached.
In the Sept. 4 incident in which Groubert shot Jones, 35, during a traffic stop, it turned out that Jones was unarmed, had no weapons in his vehicle and was only leaning back into his vehicle to retrieve his driver’s license, after Groubert had asked to see it.
On Aug. 14, 2012, Groubert was involved in a much different shooting incident in downtown Columbia. In that incident, Groubert was in a car chase during early morning traffic along two interstates that spilled into Five Points. The driver got out of his car and hid behind it, firing at Groubert and another trooper in the parking lot of the Wells Fargo Bank.
The troopers returned fire, wounding the gunman, Scott Parker Hanson, then 41, of Elgin. In 2013, Hanson was convicted of two counts of attempted murder, possession of a weapon during a violent crime and failure to stop for a blue light. He is serving a 25-year prison sentence.
Public Safety Department director Leroy Smith, asked Thursday through a spokeswoman for comment on whether Groubert might have had PTSD issues at the time of the shooting, repeated a statement he made last week when he announced the trooper’s firing.
“Only Mr. Groubert can articulate why he reacted in the manner he did,” Smith said.
According to the Highway Patrol, which is a part of the Public Safety Department, Groubert underwent a critical incident stress debriefing with fellow officers involved in the 2012 shooting immediately afterward.
Then, in February 2013, Groubert underwent a three-day post-critical incident seminar with law enforcement peers, mental health professionals and law enforcement chaplains.
After that, patrol officials evaluated Groubert's progress. DPS director Smith then pronounced Groubert fit for active duty, DPS spokeswoman Sherri Iacobelli said Thursday.
The Patrol does have various employee assistance programs designed to identify and treat various psychological issues, according to a policy statement furnished to The State newspaper on Thursday.
However, some details of these programs – such as whether a traumatized trooper would have to pay for professional counseling – were unclear.
On Sept. 4, Groubert stopped Jones at about 5 p.m. at the intersection of Broad River and Whiteford roads in the St. Andrews area of Columbia. Jones pulled the burgundy and white Dodge Durango SUV he was driving into the parking lot of a Circle K gas station. A minute later, the incident unfolded.
The video was made public during a bond hearing Wednesday night at Richland County’s Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center. Assistant prosecutor Joanna McDuffie played it for Magistrate Ethel Brewer. After the hearing, the solicitor’s office released the video to the news media.
Groubert, 31, who was the 2007 S.C. Trooper of the Year, was charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. He was arrested Wednesday and released on $75,000 bond. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 20 years in prison.
On Sept. 19, Groubert was fired from his job. Public Safety director Smith said Groubert had completely misread the situation during the traffic stop and grossly overreacted.
McCulloch said he knows Groubert and has seen him in court numerous times.
“He always seemed to me like a very businesslike, serious law enforcement officer, and not one who you would have thought of as having some crazy, impulsive streak,” McCulloch said. “Knowing all this, and seeing the video, it seemed as if there is a potential issue of PTSD. I though that there was something wrong here, that perhaps there’s a psychological issue.”
Such a diagnosis might not excuse Grobert’s shooting of Jones, but it could well lessen any punishment a judge might give him were a jury to find him guilty, McCulloch said.
McCulloch said in some criminal cases, a defense of PTSD has no foundation.
For example, in the past month, McCulloch represented a victim who was severely beaten while walking in Columbia’s Shandon neighborhood by a U.S. Marine who had served a combat tour in Afghanistan. In a criminal proceeding, the Marine asked for leniency because he had PTSD.
However, said McCulloch, who was in court as the victim’s lawyer, there was no evidence that the Marine actually had PTSD. The Marine wound up getting three years in prison.
PTSD issues often include denial of the condition.
And law enforcement officers aren’t immune to PTSD.
The S.C. House of Representatives earlier this year considered a bill that would have made it easier for law enforcement officers to receive counseling if they used deadly force or were subjected to deadly force while in the line of duty.
The bill also would have made officers who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder after being involved in a shooting eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.
The bill was inspired by Brandon Bentley, a Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Department deputy who shot and killed a man while on a call in 2009. Bentley never worked again after the shooting, and attempted suicide at least twice.
The state Supreme Court ruled Bentley was not eligible for workers’ compensation because state law says benefits only are available if the event that leads to an injury was “extraordinary and unusual.” The court ruled that, for a police officer, shooting someone was part of the job.
State Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, who introduced the bill, said Thursday it was defeated because it became a workers’ compensation issue.
In any case, Pope said, officers who need serious counseling after an incident should have that opportunity made available to them. Pope quoted former SLED Chief Robert Stewart, himself a veteran of shooting incidents, who told lawmakers once that if four officers are involved in a shooting, three may be able to handle it, but the fourth may need help to process things mentally.
“We need to do something,” Pope said, making clear he was not offering an opinion in Groubert’s situation.
Pope’s bill passed the House, but went nowhere in the S.C. Senate.