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S.C. trooper trial begins

COLUMBIA -- A white state trooper seen on a dashboard videotape hitting a black suspect fleeing on foot with his patrol car then bragging about it afterward goes on trial this week on a federal civil rights charge.

The case against Steve Garren is being watched closely by black lawmakers and leaders who contend Garren's actions were part a longstanding culture of misconduct within the Highway Patrol.

"This guy deserves to be prosecuted," said state Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, when contacted last week. "In his own admission (on the dashboard videotape), he was testifying against himself."

The charge against Garren, indicted in June, is the first federal civil rights case against a trooper since authorities launched an investigation in March into alleged misconduct within the department.

Another white trooper, John Sawyer, seen on a dashboard video repeatedly kicking a white suspect in the head after a car chase, was indicted on a federal civil rights charge in July and is awaiting trial.

Columbia attorney John O'Leary, one of Garren's lawyers, said last week Garren is innocent.

"It really boils down to an accident that's our position," O'Leary said. "Stupid? Yes. But a crime? No."

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin McDonald declined comment.

The trial in U.S. District Court in Greenville before Chief Judge David Norton is expected to last several days. Opening statements are set for Tuesday.

If convicted, Garren, 39, faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. However, under federal sentencing guidelines, his sentence likely would be far less severe.

A 15-year Highway Patrol veteran, Garren has been on suspension without pay since his June indictment.

Garren's case stems from Gov. Mark Sanford's decision in February to force the resignations of then-Department of Public Safety Director James Schweitzer and Patrol commander Col. Russell Roark. Sanford said the two should have fired another white trooper who used a racial slur and threatened to kill a fleeing black suspect.

Over the next several months, The State obtained hundreds of pages of internal documents and more than two dozen dashboard videos showing questionable behavior by some troopers including the incident involving Garren.

Sanford later nominated Mark Keel a 28-year veteran of the State Law Enforcement Division to take over the troubled department.

`I WAS TRYING TO HIT HIM'

In a federal indictment, Garren is accused of striking Marvin Grant with his patrol vehicle June 24, 2007, in Greenwood County, "resulting in bodily injury" and using "unreasonable force."

Federal authorities allege that about 10-40 p.m., Garren was pursuing a fleeing car driven by Grant, who allegedly had been speeding.

Grant stopped the vehicle on Holman Street on the city of Greenwood's eastern edge. He jumped out of the car and began running down the street, with Garren in pursuit in his patrol vehicle.

Garren's dashboard video shows Grant suddenly jumping in front of the patrol car and being knocked off to the side out of the camera's view. Grant, who wasn't identified at the time, continued running and wasn't immediately located, authorities said.

About seven minutes later, Garren is heard on video telling a Greenwood County sheriff's deputy, "I nailed the (expletive) out of him. ... I was trying to hit him."

In court papers filed this month, prosecutors contend Garren was "steering his car directly" at Grant, and Grant "suffered considerable pain." They also said that after making the on-camera statements about hitting Grant, Garren repeated to another deputy that he "purposely struck Grant with his patrol vehicle."

Grant turned himself in the next day to the Greenwood County Sheriff's Department but was not charged with any offense related to the incident, the prosecutors said. He is expected to testify in this week's trial.

`Locker-room talk'

In his internal affairs statement obtained earlier by The State, Garren said he did not "set out to intentionally hit the violator," noting he was driving "parallel" with the suspect when the man suddenly ran across the narrow residential street into the path of his car.

In his statement, Garren said his comments to deputies were "taken out of context," adding, "I had just been involved in a vehicle and foot chase, and my adrenalin (sic) was still pumping."

The Highway Patrol referred the case to SLED, which forwarded its investigative report to Jerry Peace, the 8th Circuit solicitor for Greenwood, Newberry, Abbeville and Laurens counties.

Peace declined to prosecute, dismissing Garren's on-camera statements as "pure bravado," according to a notation in Garren's internal affairs file. Peace later told The State he thought the statements were "like locker-room talk."

In December 2007, then-DPS Director Schweitzer gave Garren a two-day suspension, saying in a letter the trooper's actions in the incident "constitute excessive force" and his recorded statements to deputies were "improper and unprofessional."

Garren's lawyers are expected to call at least two experts to testify this week about the trooper's reaction time and mental state when Grant was struck, according to a prosecution motion seeking to exclude their testimony. Garren's attorneys also have asked that the jury be allowed to visit the incident scene.

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