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Prosecutor: Officer Who Fatally Shot Teen Committed no Crime

FILR - The view of the Justice Department in Washington, Aug. 27, 2015.
FILR - The view of the Justice Department in Washington, Aug. 27, 2015.

A state prosecutor said a Seneca officer who fatally shot a 19-year-old during a drug sting didn't correctly approach the teen's vehicle, but that doesn't make him criminally responsible.

Solicitor Chrissy Adams announced Tuesday that no charges will be filed in South Carolina against Lt. Mark Tiller in the July 26 death of Zachary Hammond. The U.S. Justice Department is still investigating to determine whether to file federal charges. Adams made the announcement after meeting with Hammond's family.

Adams called it "concerning that Lt. Tiller chose to run up to Hammond's car instead of staying at his patrol car's door in attempting" to stop Hammond.

Still, Tiller broke no state law, Adams wrote in an eight-page letter to the State Law Enforcement Agency. She noted Tiller was forced to decide in less than three seconds whether to fire his gun.

The evidence "corroborates and supports Lt. Tiller's belief that he was going to be run over," she wrote in the letter, released Tuesday by the state agency as part of the case file.

A lawsuit filed by Hammond's family claims the teen had taken a woman on a first date before the shooting, then stopped at Hardee's so he could get a hamburger.

Adams said the facts don't support such claims.

Adams said most of the 842 pages of text messages collected from Hammond's phone dealt with drug sales, including a history of him supplying the woman, his passenger, with drugs. The texts also indicated an aggressive attitude toward police, including messages of him being "in full outlaw mode" and saying he'd "go out shootin."

Hammond, who had "Outlaw" tattooed on his arm a month before his death, also texted about running through police checkpoints on several occasions, including when his mother or brother were in the vehicle.

At one checkpoint in June, an officer tried to open Hammond's car door after seeing what he suspected was methamphetamine in the vehicle, but Hammond fled and wasn't arrested, Adams wrote.

Hammond was evading arrest on an outstanding warrant at the time, for failure to appear in court, and said in text messages he had no intention of stopping for law enforcement or going to jail, Adams wrote.

"Hammond had been on a dangerous and destructive course for a significant period of his life," she said.

Ronald Richter Jr., an attorney for Hammond's family, said the family respects Adams' work, but "we completely disagree with the decision not to go forward."

At the meeting, the family and attorneys for the first time saw the dashcam video of the shooting, Richter said. "It was very painful for them to watch that, but for the first time they have a better understanding of what took place," he told The Associated Press.

The video, also released by the state law enforcement agency, shows the police cruiser speeding to the parking lot and pulling up behind a silver sedan.

"Hands up! Put 'em up!" Tiller yells as he approaches the car. The car backs up and then starts pulling away. Tiller grabs the left front fender of the car as it moves by, at which point he fires at the driver.

The car moves out of camera view, but the audio later picks up the sounds of crying and an officer telling someone to again put their hands up.

Seneca police said an undercover officer was at the Hardee's after arranging a drug deal with the woman. The woman was not injured and later was charged with simple possession of marijuana.

Cocaine packaged for distribution was found in Hammond's shorts pocket, and packages of marijuana were found near his seat, Adams wrote.

Greg Dietterick, the city administrator for Seneca, said in a statement Tuesday that the investigation "shows Lt. Tiller was acting in self-defense. It is now time to start healing Seneca." The community of 8,200 is in upstate South Carolina, a few miles west of Clemson.

Tiller attorney John Mussetto said the officer agrees with the outcome of the investigation.

"As stated from day one, Lt. Tiller acted in self-defense and the decision today supports this position," Mussetto said.