The U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement on Wednesday announcing that the FBI and U.S. Attorney would open a civil rights investigation into the death of a 19-year-old killed by police during a recent marijuana bust. Hours before the Justice Department’s announcement, the teenager’s family called on prosecutors to release the dash cam footage of the incident. But the video remains suppressed.
While driving through a Hardee’s parking lot on July 26, Zachary Hammond, 19, and Tori Morton, 23, were approached by an undercover cop asking to buy weed. The officer pulled his vehicle beside Hammond’s car to purchase marijuana from Morton when a uniformed officer named Lt. Mark Tiller ran towards them with his gun drawn.
According to Seneca Police Chief John Covington, Hammond drove toward Lt. Tiller in an attempt to murder him. Fearing for his life, Tiller shot Hammond twice at pointblank range killing him. But according to witness statements and Hammond’s autopsy, Hammond was not attempting to run down Tiller in the moments before he died.
After reviewing the shooting, the Hammond family’s attorney, Eric Bland, asserts that Hammond was shifting his car into park when someone shouted that Hammond had a gun. Hammond’s vehicle wasn’t moving when the officer’s bullets tore into his body. Although Chief Covington insisted that Hammond was not shot from behind, an autopsy report conducted by medical examiner James Fulcher, M.D., revealed that two bullets struck Hammond in the back of his left shoulder and his left side.
“Their findings are telling,” Bland stated. “They directly contradict the narrative that Chief Covington has tried to shape in this matter. It was deceptive to state that Zachary was shot in the ‘chest and shoulder.’ It did not give it proper context. It implied that the officer shot Zachary from the front. He did not. The shots were clearly fired from the side to the rear of the vehicle through [the] driver’s open window at close range.”
After the shooting, Morton was arrested and charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession. After searching Hammond and his vehicle, police discovered that the teenager had been unarmed and was not carrying any drugs. Although dash cam video of the incident reportedly exists, Chief Covington has refused to publicly release the footage. Aware that officers in South Carolina routinely claim to fire at vehicles moving toward them even though evidence routinely proves otherwise, Hammond’s parents called on prosecutors to bring transparency to their son’s death and release the footageon Wednesday.
A few hours later, the Justice Department announced that the FBI’s Columbia field office and U.S. Attorney would open a civil rights investigation that will run parallel to the state’s investigation. The Post and Courier has submitted a request for the dash cam video under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
During a routine traffic stop last month, Officer Ray Tensing gunned down Samuel DuBose and then lied in order to justify the killing. Officer Tensing attempted to cover up his crime by claiming that he was being dragged by DuBose’s car and nearly run over by the suspect. After reviewing Tensing’s body cam footage, a grand jury indicted him on charges of murder and voluntary manslaughter.