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Litchfield shooting: Suit is settled, but debate over training continues

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The daughter of a Litchfield woman shot and killed by a county deputy in her apartment in 2014 will receive about $600,000 once she becomes an adult. The payments are part of an agreement that settled a civil suit brought by the estate of Valerie Harrington against Georgetown County, the sheriff’s office and three deputies.

There is no admission of wrongdoing in the settlement, and the sides continue to disagree about the training the deputies received to handle people with mental illness.

Deputy Joe Wilson was dispatched to Harrington’s apartment at Litchfield Oaks on a Saturday afternoon in July 2014 for a welfare check after her mother, Reta Abbott, called 911 to say her daughter, 36, was posting suicidal messages on Facebook.

Harrington and her ex-husband were involved in a child custody dispute. She had recently lost her job as an engineer at International Paper.

Wilson and deputies Dawud Aswad and Brandon Siratt got a key and entered the apartment when Harrington wouldn’t come to the door. She came out of the bathroom with a kitchen knife.

The deputies ordered Harrington to drop the knife. Aswad fired a Taser, but missed. She was within two arms’ lengths of Wilson when he fired 15 rounds from his pistol. “Why did she not drop the knife?” Wilson said in a statement to the State Law Enforcement Division, which investigated the incident. “All she had to do was drop the knife.”

Solicitor Jimmy Richardson reviewed the SLED report and found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Abbott brought suit in Circuit Court as the personal representative of her daughter’s estate claiming negligence because the deputies were not trained to deal with a person with mental illness and excessive use of force. The county had the case moved to the U.S. District Court in Charleston where mediation is mandatory. “We worked more and more on the case,” said James McBratney, attorney for Abbott. “The two sides got closer together.”

In addition to providing for Harrington’s daughter, Lexi, now 5, the suit was filed “to make the public aware that law enforcement is ill-equipped to deal with mentally ill people,” McBratney said.

The total value of the settlement is $738,880, with $150,000 set aside for legal fees and costs, according to court records. A $250,000 annuity will provide future payments to the daughter. The $400,000 current cost of the settlement will be paid on behalf of the county by the S.C. Insurance Reserve Fund.

The settlement was approved by Probate Judge Waldo Maring last week. As part of the agreement, attorneys promised not to publicize the settlement.

“This was the kind of case that could have gone either way,” McBratney said. “It was in the best interest of the family and the daughter to resolve it.”

He believes the Insurance Reserve Fund will help ensure that deputies are trained to handle people with mental health problems. “I don’t fault the individual officers as much as the lack of training,” McBratney said. “They admitted in depositions that they had no training.”

He also said the county attorney was aware of the situation.

“That’s completely untrue,” Wesley Bryant, Georgetown County’s attorney, said, adding that he has never spoken to McBratney. The suit was handled by an attorney for the reserve fund. Bryant said deputies are prepared for those situations.

“Our class is approved by the Criminal Justice Academy,” Bryant said. “It’s more than adequate.”

Sheriff Lane Cribb could not be reached for comment this week. In an interview before the November election, he said, “we always try to come up with better ways, but what is the better way?”

Court records show the county planned to present expert testimony suggesting that Harrington tried to commit “suicide by cop.”

“They knew her mental health situation was fragile,” McBratney said. “No third person was in danger.”

After the deputies entered the apartment, Harrington told them, “go away. Leave me alone,” McBratney said. “It’s all on audio tape.”

The deputies ordered Harrington out of the bathroom and yelled for her to drop the knife. “Then you hear 15 rounds fired within half a second,” he said.

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