Trooper seen on dashboard video ramming man with car is indicted

COLUMBIA -- A white state trooper who was seen on a dashboard video hitting with his patrol vehicle a black suspect fleeing on foot in Greenwood County last year with has been indicted on a federal charge of violating the suspect's civil rights.

Prosecutors indicated he likely won't be the only trooper to face charges stemming from similar incidents, which preceded the forced resignations of two top officials at the Department of Public Safety.

If convicted, Lance Cpl. Steve Garren, 39, of Greenwood, could receive up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, Walt Wilkins, the newly confirmed U.S. attorney for South Carolina, said Tuesday.

"Allegations of law enforcement abuse are serious and must be considered carefully," Wilkins said in a prepared statement.

Wilkins also expects "additional presentations to the federal grand jury" stemming from an ongoing joint federal-state investigation into allegations of misconduct by troopers.

The charge is the first federal case against a trooper since authorities launched an investigation in March after dashboard videos of Garren's incident and a similar incident involving another trooper were made public.

According to the indictment issued by a federal grand jury in Greenville, Garren is accused of striking Marvin Grant with his patrol vehicle June 24, 2007, "resulting in bodily injury."

The indictment said Garren's actions did "willfully deprive" Grant of his constitutional right to be "free from the use of unreasonable force" by a law enforcement officer.

Garren is heard on video telling several officers he had intended to hit the fleeing suspect on foot with his patrol car: "I nailed the (expletive) out of him; I was trying to hit him."

Efforts Tuesday to reach Garren, who is not in custody, were unsuccessful. One of his attorneys, John O'Leary of Columbia, told The State on Tuesday that his client is innocent.

"It's like Alice in Wonderland," O'Leary said. "The officer is trying to enforce the law; the offender violates the law, but the officer is charged.

"I don't think you will see it as egregious as the politicians who are pushing this case."

U.S. attorneys informed Garren last month they planned to take his case to the grand jury for indictment, O'Leary said. A bond hearing likely will be held next week in Greenville.

Mark Keel, who officially takes over next week as the new Department of Public Safety director, said Tuesday that Garren will be suspended without pay "during the duration" of his criminal case.

"Officers know for the most part what's right and what's wrong," Keel told The State. "The bottom line is ... (federal authorities) believe he went way past that line, and he's going to have to suffer the consequences."

Gov. Mark Sanford in February forced then-director James Schweitzer and Highway Patrol commander Col. Russell Roark to resign.

He said they should have fired another white trooper who was heard on tape using a racial slur while threatening to kill a fleeing black suspect after a 2004 Greenwood County traffic stop.

The federal charge against Garren is "a very serious matter," Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said Tuesday. "We expect the Department of Public Safety to cooperate fully and to ultimately resolve the matter in court."

Efforts to reach Schweitzer were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Roark told The State on Tuesday that he had recommended to Schweitzer that the State Law Enforcement Division investigate the incident involving Garren and turn its findings over to prosecutors for review which he noted was done.

"Through all this whole thing," Roark said, "I made the decision to take the high road."

Jerry Peace, the 8th Circuit solicitor in Greenwood, declined to issue charges against Garren after reviewing the case. On Tuesday, he said he stands by his decision.

"My review of the videotape shows a criminal running away from law enforcement and darting in front of the vehicle, giving the trooper no time to react to the stop," Peace said.

"There's not a decision that a solicitor makes that doesn't make somebody mad, or somebody doesn't agree with, .Ê.Ê. but that doesn't change the facts."

Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said Peace should "be embarrassed for himself."

"This indictment helps to restore confidence in the public that someone cares, and that there is a higher authority than the good-ol'-boy, small-town solicitor."

Lonnie Randolph, the state NAACP president, said he is happy to see action is being taken. He expects more indictments.

"I regret it for the department and the officer," he said, "but it's what's deserved. The patrolman's actions were inexcusable."

Garren's comments indicating he intended to hit the suspect were "taken out of context," O'Leary said, noting they were made at least seven minutes after the incident. Peace earlier dismissed the comments as "locker-room talk."

In his internal affairs statement to investigators, Garren said he did not "set out to intentionally hit the violator with my patrol vehicle."

The road on which the incident occurred is narrow, O'Leary said. "There's not really a lot of choice about where you're going to have to turn."

The suspect, who wasn't identified at the time, jumped out of a car after a chase and kept running after being hit by Garren's patrol car and escaped, according to department records.

FBI agents were able to contact the suspect Marvin Grant after reviewing the case, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin McDonald said Tuesday.

"He didn't come forward in response to these videos being shown," McDonald said.

The case was investigated by the FBI and SLED and is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Carolina and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

The news that Garren, a married father of two young children was charged, came as a surprise to neighbors, including Cheryl Price.

Such conduct would be very uncharacteristic of him, said Price, who has lived down the street from him for seven years.

"He just seems like a very well-mannered, very polite man. It's just a shock to everybody."

Reach Brundrett at (803) 771-8484; Higgins at (803) 771-8570.

AP-NY-06-10-08 2210EDT