Family: traffic control resulting in fatal shots was illegal | US News®
By MICHELLE LIU, Associated Press / Report for America
COLUMBIA, SC (AP) – Relatives of the black man who was fatally shot and killed by a South Carolina state white soldier this month say the soldier attempted an illegal traffic control and therefore has no legal reason to stop the man during the ensuing battle pursue and eventually kill.
State Police are still investigating what happened on September 11th when Master Trooper Whittney Blake Benton tried to stop Tristan Vereen on State Highway 905 near Loris for an equipment breach.
The family’s lawyer claims Benton stopped Vereen over a broken windshield, so the original reason for the traffic control was illegal and Vereen had the right to oppose his arrest.
“It wasn’t about the windshield. It was about him driving with a broken windshield during Black in South Carolina, ”said attorney Harry Daniels.
Authorities said a brief car chase ensued before Vereen crashed his car into an outbuilding, started running, and got into a fight with the soldier. District 15 attorney Jimmy Richardson said Vereen got his hands on Benton’s stun gun, bit and shocked the soldier before Benton shot him once in the chest. Vereen, 33, died at a nearby hospital later that day.
“We are here to demand justice for my brother,” said Veren’s sister Marion at a press conference on Wednesday. “There was no valid reason for the 9/11 stop that resulted in the soldier murdering my brother.”
Law enforcement officials failed to disclose what the equipment breach was, despite Richardson previously telling reporters that Vereen drove a car with a visibly cracked windshield.
Daniels claimed the windshield was the cause of the stop, but denied the lawyer’s characterization of the glass. He said South Carolina law prohibits locked windshields, but that doesn’t make cracked windshields in and of itself illegal.
“It’s a crack, but it’s not an obstructed view. You can still see the windshield clearly, ”Daniels told The Associated Press.
Veren’s relatives pieced together some of the moments that led to his death with dashcam footage released by the state Highway Patrol through a public filing request and surveillance footage released by the attorney from the property where the shooting took place .
The dashcam footage starts just before Benton turns into the street to chase Vereen, but the video doesn’t show what caused the traffic stop. Vereen drives a silver Honda Element that lawyers said belonged to his girlfriend’s mother.
For the first few minutes, Benton chases Vereen, who makes a U-turn and drifts onto the wrong side of the street when Benton calls him to stop. Vereen finally pulls into a driveway and runs out of the car, followed by Benton on foot.
The fight between the two takes place outside of the frame, but the sound captures part of the fight, with Benton ordering Vereen to “get down on the ground” and “let me see your hands”.
After a shot, Vereen exclaims: “He killed me.”
“Turn around. Turn around or I’ll do it again,” says Benton before ordering Vereen to go down on the floor.
The surveillance video, which has no sound, shows Benton following Vereen on foot as the two of them move in and out of the picture, wrestling on the floor. Vereen later falls to the ground and then stumbles across the frame, taking off his shirt while Benton follows, gun in hand.
Benton had surgery for injuries sustained during the fight, according to State Security Department spokeswoman Sherri Iacobelli, before he was released from hospital. He was on leave.
A review of Benton’s personnel file reveals “successful” and “exceptional” performance ratings since he was first employed with Highway Patrol in 2010. The file contains a single reference to a 2013 citizen complaint. According to that reference, Benton was conducting a traffic stop for a cracked windshield and went on to make “unprofessional and inappropriate” comments to the driver of the car, commenting on the man’s painted toenails and asking if he was wearing “girls jeans”.
Court records show that a man once arrested by Benton filed a federal lawsuit in 2016 alleging the soldier used excessive force during a 2013 traffic stop in Florence, resulting in back and wrist injuries. That lawsuit was dismissed about a year later.
Michelle Liu is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national utility that places journalists on local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.
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