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Family: Traffic stop that led to fatal shooting was unlawful

September 30, 2021 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Relatives of the Black man fatally shot by a white South Carolina state trooper this month say the trooper attempted an illegal traffic stop, and thus had no legal reason to chase and eventually kill the man during the following struggle.

State police are still investigating what happened on Sept. 11 when Master Trooper Whittney Blake Benton tried to pull over Tristan Vereen over for what the South Carolina Public Safety Department said was an equipment violation on state Highway 905 near Loris.

The family’s attorney maintains that Benton pulled Vereen over for a broken windshield, so the initial reason for the traffic stop was illegal and Vereen had the right to resist his arrest.

“It wasn’t about the windshield. It was about him driving while Black in South Carolina with a broken windshield,” lawyer Harry Daniels said.

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Authorities have said a brief chase ensued before Vereen crashed his car into a utility building, started running and wound up in a tussle with the trooper. Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said Vereen got ahold of Benton’s stun gun, biting and shocking the trooper before Benton shot him once in the chest. Vereen, 33, died later that day at a nearby hospital.

“We are here to seek justice for my brother,” Vereen’s sister Marion said at a Wednesday news conference. “There was no justifiable cause for the stop on 9/11 that led to the trooper murdering my brother.”

Law enforcement officials haven’t specified what the equipment violation was, although Richardson previously told reporters that Vereen was driving a car with a visibly cracked windshield.

Daniels maintained the windshield was the reason for the stop but contested the solicitor’s characterization of the glass. He said that South Carolina law bars obstructed windshields, but that doesn’t make cracked windshields illegal in and of themselves.

“It is a crack, but it’s not an obstructed view. You can still see out the windshield plain and clear,” Daniels told The Associated Press.

Vereen’s relatives have pieced together some of the moments leading up to his death with dashcam footage released by the state Highway Patrol through a public records request and surveillance footage released by the solicitor from the property where the shooting took place.

The dashcam footage starts shortly before Benton turns onto the road to pursue Vereen, but the video doesn’t indicate what prompted the traffic stop. Vereen is driving a silver Honda Element that attorneys said belonged to his girlfriend’s mother.

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In the first few minutes, Benton chases Vereen, who proceeds to U-turn and drift onto the wrong side of the road as Benton calls out for him to pull over. Vereen eventually pulls into a driveway and runs out of the car, with Benton following on foot.

The struggle between the two occurs out of frame, but audio captures some of the struggle, with Benton ordering Vereen to “get on the ground” and “let me see your hands.”

After the sound of a gunshot, Vereen exclaims: “He killed me.”

“Turn over. Turn over or I’ll do it again,” Benton says before ordering Vereen to get on the ground.

The surveillance video, which has no sound, shows Benton chasing Vereen on foot as the two move in and out of frame and wrestle on the ground. Vereen later falls to the ground and then staggers across the frame, pulling his shirt off as Benton follows with weapon in hand.

Benton received surgery for injuries sustained during the fight before being released from the hospital, according to state Public Safety Department spokeswoman Sherri Iacobelli. He was placed on administrative leave.

A review of Benton’s personnel file shows “successful” and “exceptional” performance reviews since he was first hired by the Highway Patrol in 2010. The file includes a single reprimand stemming from a 2013 citizen complaint. According to that reprimand, Benton initiated a traffic stop for a cracked windshield and proceeded 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 a man once detained by Benton filed a federal lawsuit in 2016, alleging the trooper had used excessive force during a 2013 traffic stop in Florence that led to back and wrist injuries. That lawsuit was dismissed about a year later.

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Michelle Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.