COLUMBIA, S.C. - Two years to the day after a South Carolina trooper was captured on video using his patrol car to bump a running suspect, a federal judge on Tuesday approved a deal that will allow the trooper to perform community service and serve no prison time.
If he had gone to trial, Lance Cpl. Alexander Richardson could have faced up to a year in prison. Instead, he will perform about 100 hours of community service.
In January, Richardson was accused of a misdemeanor offense of violating Kevin Rucker's civil rights by using excessive force. An April 28, 2007, video shot from his patrol car dashboard camera shows the trooper chasing a black man through a Columbia apartment complex. The 46-year-old trooper drives between buildings, on sidewalks and past onlookers - including a small child - in an attempt to run down the man.
Richardson, who is also black, has said he accidentally bumped into Rucker, and records show he was reprimanded and completed a stress management course. He has been suspended since the investigation began, and his trial had been scheduled to begin next month.
Richardson was not in court Tuesday, but his attorney said he was pleased with the agreement.
"I appreciate the U.S. Attorney working with us," John O'Leary said after a brief hearing Tuesday. "We're working on the program for him."
Under the pretrial diversion program administered by the U.S. Probation Office, Richardson is videotaping safety messages to school, community and law enforcement groups, according to O'Leary.
During the program, which is expected to last 18 months, Richardson also will not be allowed to work as a law officer, a job that O'Leary said his client does not want to return to anyway.
Also Tuesday, prosecutors agreed to officially withdraw their complaint against Richardson, although Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin McDonald said his office could renew the charges if Richardson fails to complete the program.
"I have no reason to believe that he will not complete pretrial diversion," said McDonald, adding prosecutors recommended the program because Richardson has no criminal record and did not face a violent crime. "He did not intend to injure this individual."
Richardson still faces a federal lawsuit from the man struck with his vehicle. Last year, Kevin Rucker filed a suit seeking unspecified actual and punitive damages, alleging he was hit by the car three times.
Rucker's attorney did not immediately return a phone message Tuesday afternoon.
Authorities began investigating the Highway Patrol last year. The chiefs of the Highway Patrol and Public Safety resigned amid criticism from black lawmakers.
Two other troopers taped while hitting suspects have faced felony civil rights charges. Former trooper John B. Sawyer, who kicked a suspect in the head after a highway chase, pleaded guilty and faces up to 10 years in prison. Steve Garren, who was caught bragging about striking a fleeing black suspect with his cruiser, was acquitted in October. He is still with the Highway Patrol.
A state lawmaker who called for investigation into misconduct at the Patrol said that, while he was disappointed in the outcome of Richardson's case, he was glad it brought on agency reform in the form of new director Mark Keel.
"If you or I just blatantly ran someone over ... we would have been charged with attempted murder. It's terrible." Rep. Leon Howard, D-Columbia, said. "The best thing that comes out of all of this is new leadership."
Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people, said he respected the agreement but didn't think it was fair.
"I just don't see a fairness in the treatment of the agents versus those elderly people, the children, even the young man that was being pursued," Randolph said. "It appears to show a bias toward people who are considered to be high ranking officials versus average citizens."