Police officer who killed Zachary Hammond avoids charges

Decision comes despite new dashcam footage that challenges South Carolina officer

A police officer in South Carolina will not face criminal charges for shooting dead a young man who was driving away from a drug deal sting operation, prosecutors said on Tuesday, even as new video footage challenged his account of what happened.

Lieutenant Mark Tiller of Seneca police, who said he killed Zachary Hammond because the 19-year-old drove a car at the officer and his patrol vehicle, was cleared despite a dashboard recording showing that Hammond was shot from the side as he passed.

Tenth circuit solicitor Chrissy Adams said that while the video was "troublesome" and "raised questions", evidence from an inquiry by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (Sled) supported Tiller's claim that he believed he was about to be run over, meaning "deadly force was justified".

“Zachary Hammond failed to comply with Lt Tiller’s orders and as a result he lost his life,” said Adams, in a letter to Sled investigators. “When Hammond made the conscious decision to flee a lawful stop he set in motion this tragic chain of events.”


The Department of Justice is reviewing the case for potential federal charges, which are not expected.

Adams disclosed in her letter that an attempted drug deal that led to Hammond's death took place only because Hammond's female passenger, Tori Morton, accidentally sent a text message from Hammond's phone to a state trooper whose number was one digit different from her intended buyer's.

Police told the trooper to play along and set up a meeting to buy marijuana and cocaine later that day in the parking lot of a local Hardee's restaurant. After arriving and buying ice cream at McDonald's, Hammond and Morton parked their Honda Civic beside an undercover police officer. "i think im beside u lol," Morton said in a final text message, which was among a batch released on Tuesday.

The dashboard camera footage showed that Tiller, who had been radioed by the undercover officer, quickly sped from an adjacent street into the parking lot and tried to block Hammond’s car with his own. Hammond reversed, however, and attempted to drive away. Tiller got out of his car and stood at the front of Hammond’s driver’s side, ordering Hammond to stop and put his hands up. Yet Hammond drove on, pushing past Tiller and forcing the officer to steady himself with one hand on the hood of Hammond’s car.

Tiller then fired his pistol twice in rapid succession through Hammond’s driver-side window. Nine seconds had elapsed since the officer arrived. “He tried to hit me,” Tiller is heard saying out of the dashboard camera’s view.

In a statement released in August, Tiller's attorney John Mussetto said that after arriving, Tiller had immediately ordered Hammond to stop.

“Rather than abide by this order, Mr Hammond rapidly reversed his vehicle towards Lt Tiller’s patrol vehicle,” said Mussetto. “Mr Hammond then rapidly accelerated in the direction of Lt Tiller, forcing the lieutenant to push off of Mr Hammond’s car to keep from being struck and run over.”

The video footage shows Hammond had already begun reversing away from Tiller’s patrol vehicle when the officer made his first order for the 19-year-old to stop. Hammond’s Honda then drove forward and around Tiller, who opened fire while facing Hammond’s front driver-side window as the car passed.

Mussetto said in August that Tiller shot Hammond “in order to stop the continuing threat to himself and the general public”. In an emailed statement on Tuesday he said Tiller agreed with Adams’s decision. “As stated from day one, Lt Tiller acted in self-defence and the decision today supports this position,” he said.

Asked twice whether the video footage contradicted their earlier account of what happened, Musetto did not respond.

Urging people not to play “Monday morning quarterback”, Adams ruled on Tuesday that Tiller’s actions were reasonable under current law. Hammond was attempting to flee arrest, and Tiller was forced to make a “split-second decision”, she said.

Yet in an attempt to add retrospective justification for Tiller’s decision to shoot, Adams also released extensive allegations about drug dealing by Hammond, along with a detail that he had recently obtained a tattoo of the word “outlaw” on one of his arms.

She said Hammond’s text message history, which officers had not seen before he was shot, disclosed that the 19-year-old “had no intention of stopping for law enforcement”.