National News

APNewsBreak: Grand jury won't indict officer who shot at car

Posted April 19

— A grand jury has refused to bring an attempted murder charge against a South Carolina police officer who stepped in front of a car driven by a teen, and then fired seven shots at the vehicle as it drove away.

Prosecutors sought the indictment against Forest Acres police officer Robert Cooper last week. The decision by a grand jury to refuse to sign an indictment is rare in South Carolina. One defense attorney estimates it happens in less than 1 percent of cases.

The one-page document filed by April 12 by Solicitor Dan Johnson gives no reason why authorities thought Cooper should be charged in the May 19 shooting.

Cooper was checking on a loud noise complaint in the suburb about 5 miles (8 km) east of downtown Columbia when 17-year-old Antwon Gallmon jumped from the passenger seat of a car into the driver's seat and began to drive off.

A video from Cooper's dashboard camera showed him chasing the car on foot, then standing in front of it as Gallmon tried to turn around.

"Stop! Do not make me shoot you!" Cooper yells. Gallmon drives forward, steering away from the officer, and Cooper steps to his right and fires seven shots, the first after the front bumper passed him.

Cooper is white and Gallmon is black.

Johnson did not return a phone call or email asking why he sought the indictment.

Cooper still works for Forest Acres police and is a 7-year veteran of the force, according to records from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy obtained by The Associated Press.

In the months after the shooting, records show Cooper took nine training classes — including one just two days after the shooting. One of the classes was titled "De-Escalation: Surviving Verbal Conflict."

Cooper has been on administrative leave since the shooting and not on patrol, Forest Acres Police Chief Gene Sealy said Wednesday.

Sealy is waiting for the full investigation file from state police before deciding If Cooper faces any internal discipline or can go back out on the streets.

"That's a path we will go down shortly. We were waiting to see what the solicitor was going to do," Sealy said.

Cooper's lawyer didn't return a phone call Wednesday.

State police training tells officers never to stand in front of a vehicle or fire after it has moved past. It only authorizes deadly force when an officer or others face imminent danger.

After the shooting, Cooper got back into his cruiser and joined a chase of Gallmon. He told a dispatcher: "He almost hit me. I was barely able to get out of the way."

Gallmon was wounded and has sued the police department. His lawsuit said Cooper lied about being in danger to cover an unjustified shooting and put the teen and the public at unnecessary risk.

Gallmon crashed after a short chase and suffered more injuries, the lawsuit said.

Two guns were found inside the car, which turned out to be stolen. Gallmon is awaiting trial for two counts of unlawful possession of a pistol, possession of a stolen vehicle, failure to stop for blue lights and other charges from that day.

This is at least the second time Johnson has tried and failed to indict an officer in Richland County. In 2014, Sheriff Leon Lott asked Johnson to prosecute one of his deputies, Kirk Willis, for firing a shot at a car that was already a few hundred feet distant and driving away. The grand jury refused an attempt murder indictment in that case as well.

State prosecutors rarely present police shooting cases to grand juries.

And a grand jury refusing to indict a case presented to them is extremely rare in South Carolina. Patrick McLaughlin, a past President of the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has surveyed several counties in South Carolina and found grand juries indict well over 99 percent of cases.

"I used to joke and say a prosecutor can get an indictment 99.9 percent of the time when they want to," McLaughlin said. "But then I got the data and found out I was darn near accurate."

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jeffrey-collins .

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