Columbia, SC (WLTX) - A former South Carolina state trooper has been sentenced to for shooting an unarmed man, in an at times emotional hearing that saw the ex-officer break down into tears in court.
Sean Groubert learned his fate Tuesday in a Richland County court. He had plead guilty last year to a charge of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.
Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning said Groubert was sentenced to 12 years, suspended upon service of five years, and three years probation with credit for time served. In short, Groubert will serve five years, but get credit for the 17 months he's already spent behind bars.
He would then have the probation after getting out of prison, whenever that occurs.
Groubert shot Levar Jones on September 4, 2014 outside a Circle K gas station on Broad River Road in Columbia. The then trooper said he stopped Jones for a seat belt violation.
"I screwed up, plain and simple," Groubert told Jones directly in court. "I pray that one day you'll be able to find peace with this and forgive me."
"You did absolutely nothing wrong," Groubert said. "You did noting to warrant the force that was used against you."
Jones asked the judge for the maximum penalty. "It took eight seconds to go from a traffic stop to an officer trying to kill me," Jones told the judge.
He said he can't forget that in the moments after the shooting, Groubert told his supervisors that Jones was "aggressive" and was acting in a threatening manner.
"His next instinct was to paint a picture of an animal, to put him in a cage," Jones said.
Since the shooting, Jones said he has had trouble with relationships with other people, and that he can't get on an elevator with a police officer. He said he never had those feelings before.
"I feel like I have to live with this," Jones said. "I'm just not the same person I used to be."
An infamous dash cam video surfaced of the incident and showed exactly what happened. That video was shown across the nation, and led to a national discussion on the use of force. The video was played for the judge before sentencing.
In the recording, Jones exited his vehicle, and Groubert commanded him to get his license. Moments later, as Jones reached into his car to get the credential, Groubert began yelling at Jones to "get out of the car" firing several shots as he did.
While on the ground Jones said, "I have my license right here, you said get my license."
Groubert can be heard asking Jones if he was hit by a bullet and went on to say, "Bro, you dove head first back into your car."
Jones was shot a total of four times, including near the hip.
Groubert had told investigators shortly after the shooting that he feared for his life, and claimed that Jones was aggressive and was threatening from the beginning of the traffic stop. However, the video clearly showed his statements were false.
The highway patrol is a division of the South Carolina Department of :Public Safety, and that agency's director, Leroy Smiith, fired Groubert after reviewing the video. Smith called the incident "disturbing," saying Groubert "reacted to a perceived threat where there was none."
But during sentencing, Groubert's lawyer brought up that his client suffered from PTSD from an incident from 2012. In that case, Groubert pulled over a speeding suspect on Interstate 20 near Columbia. After the stop, the man drove off, and eventually was cornered by Groubert and other officers outside a bank. The suspect fired at officers, who responded by hitting and injuring the suspect.
He cried in court when video of the 2012 incident was played in court.
Groubert said during his sentencing that he experienced a "flashback" as the incident with Jones began. He said that he had saw black object in Jones' hands, which he thought was a weapon, and fired in an effort to save his own life.
A video was played from the gas station's security camera which showed Groubert dodging for cover. His lawyer said that proved that Groubert thought he was in danger, even if it turned out he actually wasn't.
A doctor who evaluated Groubert also said that she observed signs of PTSD, and that he is taking two forms of medication for the disorder.
Groubert's friend, father, wife, and mother all spoke on his behalf.
"He is a good person, he has always been a good person," his mother said. "Give my son a second chance."
His wife says Groubert has a daughter who he hasn't been able to have a relationship with. "I'm would like the opportunity to resume some type of normalcy in our lives," Morgan Groubert said.
Prosectors, however, countered with jailhouse statements they say Groubert made, where they said he wanted to sue for wrongful termination because he thought he did nothing wrong, and complained that black people in South Carolina "had a chip on their shoulder."
Jones ultimately reached a $285,000 settlement with the state of South Carolina over the incident. As part of the arrangement, Jones agreed to not pursue any further lawsuits related to the shooting.