Police in Seneca, South Carolina, last Friday released the name of the officer who fatally shot 19-year-old Zachary Hammond in a minor marijuana sting in July, following nearly two weeks of resistance from Seneca Police Chief John Covington. Shortly afterward, a lawyer representing the officer sought to shift the scrutiny off his newly identified client and back onto Hammond's actions.
In a statement Friday, attorney John Mussetto defended 32-year-old Lt. Mike Tiller, a 10-year veteran of law enforcement. Both Tiller and Hammond are white.
The lawyer said Tiller pulled into a Hardee's parking lot on July 26 to back up an undercover officer making a drug deal with a passenger in Hammond's vehicle. Tiller parked his patrol car in a position to box in Hammond's Honda Civic, before approaching the vehicle and ordering Hammond to show his hands.
"Rather than abide by this order, Mr. Hammond rapidly reversed his vehicle towards Lt. Tiller's patrol vehicle," Mussetto said. "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."
Tiller fired two shots into Hammond's vehicle "in order to stop the continuing threat to himself and the general public," Mussetto said. "If not for Lieutenant Tiller's quick reflexes and his ability to push off of the car, Lieutenant Tiller would have easily been run over by Mr. Hammond."
Instead, Tiller killed Hammond with the two gunshots, one to the back of his left shoulder and a fatal shot to his left side. Autopsies have shown that the officer began shooting at near point-blank range through the open driver's side window.
While the allegation that Hammond put his car in reverse before driving it at Tiller appears to be new, it did nothing to assuage the concerns of the young man's family.
Eric Bland, an attorney for Hammond's family, said, "[T]he entry wounds of the two bullet holes are the best and most accurate piece of evidence of the location of Lt. Tiller when he discharged his weapon and whether he or anyone else was under threat for his physical safety at the time he discharged his bullets." The lawyer suggested that it would have been very difficult for any officer to "push off" an accelerating vehicle, re-establish his balance and then fire two shots through that moving vehicle's open window, which both hit their target.
Bland has previously said that the direction of the bullets proves that police haven't been telling the truth about the incident.
In a statement Sunday, he also took issue with Mussetto's claim that Hammond was truly a threat at the time of the shooting.
"There was no warrant for his arrest," Bland said. "There was no APB for him or his car. There was no murder or [life] that was in danger if shots were not fired and the automobile continued on to leave Hardees. There was no AMBER alert. There was no ticking bomb situation. This is clearly made up. It is ridiculous."
In his statement last week, Mussetto said that "a white powdery substance consistent with powder cocaine was found by the coroner on Mr. Hammond's person and was taken as evidence by [the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division]," which is now investigating Hammond's case.
An incident report filed by another officer at the scene makes no mention of cocaine being found on Hammond’s body. In any case, this detail is irrelevant to the questions currently being asked of police in Seneca. Possible cocaine possession does nothing to explain why an officer used lethal -- and the family argues excessive -- force on Hammond.
Hammond's parents, along with Bland, have also expressed concern that the circumstances of their son's death aren't being questioned loudly enough by the community. Around 50 people attended a candlelight vigil for Zachary on Friday night, but the Hammonds told the Charleston-based Post and Courier that they've heard nothing from city leaders or other elected officials. Bland has suggested that race initially played a factor in the lack of coverage -- though outlets including The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post picked up the story last week following substantial outrage on Twitter, largely from supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black non-violence activist Jack Logan, of Greenville, South Carolina, has also scheduled a "rally for justice" for Hammond, set to be held on Aug. 15 in downtown Seneca.