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Suspended Fort Jackson drill sergeant found guilty of assault on Black man

A gavel cracks down. (Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid/U.S. Air Force)

A judge found suspended Fort Jackson Army Sgt. Jonathan Pentland guilty Monday of assaulting a Black man in a northeast Columbia neighborhood in an incident that spawned protests, riled emotions and captured national attention.

After a two-day bench trial at Richland County magistrate court on Decker Boulevard, Judge Diedra Hightower gave the guilty verdict for third-degree assault and battery, a misdemeanor.

Pentland was sentenced to either 30 days in prison or a fine of $1,087. A bench trial does not include a jury. Instead, the judge determines the verdict.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department charged Pentland days after video hit social media showing the Army sergeant yelling at the man and telling him to get out of the Barony Place neighborhood in the Summit. Sheriff Leon Lott said Pentland became physical with the man, warranting a third degree assault and battery charge. Witnesses testified that they saw Pentland shove and hit the person on the arm.

The incident was seen by some as another moment of racism against a Black man. Black community groups gathered outside Pentland’s house to express their anger after the video was publicized.

Pentland’s attorney, Benjamin Allen Stitely, argued that the altercation was based on behavior by the alleged victim before cameras were turned on and that Pentland was justified in his actions.

Stitely decried the way people labeled Pentland “a bully and a racist. He was defending his family and friends,” Stitely said.

Several witnesses said Williams was acting “erratic” or volatile before the incident. Williams’ father testified that his son, once a high-performing student, suffered potential brain damage after suffering from lymphoma, a type of cancer. Williams, who is now in remission, suffered swelling throughout his lymph system and in his brain, Williams’ father testified. As a result, Williams struggles to complete basic tasks, such as getting groceries without assistance.

The lead-up

Pentland’s defense attorneys didn’t deny what happened on the video, but said the video lacked crucial context that went back several days.

Kimberly Hernandez, who lives in The Summit, testified that in the days before the event several of her family members had disturbing encounters with Williams.

Williams frequently approached one of Hernandez’s daughters while she was walking the dog throughout the neighborhood, Hernandez testified.

“I don’t care if he walks in the area,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t want him stopping my daughter anytime he was outside.”

On a separate encounter, Williams allegedly picked up a baby belonging to Hernandez’s daughter-in law, she testified.

Following the incident where Williams allegedly picked up the baby, Hernandez’s daughter-in-law went outside on April 12 — the day of the incident — and confronted Williams, saying he had no permission to touch her child.

“I went outside expecting them to be right outside and I saw my daughter-in-law arguing with him and I told her to quickly come back to the house,” Hernandez said.

The daughter-in-law came back but Williams followed, Hernandez said.

“He was angry by the time he approached me. He was already erratic and jumping back and forth. He was telling me he did nothing wrong,” Hernandez said.

Williams was yelling so loud and got so close to Hernandez, he was unintentionally spitting in her face, she testified.

“I would think he would start to walk away, but immediately he would come back and come back to me,” Hernandez said.

After seeing Hernandez and Williams arguing, neighbor Renee Wilson testified that she called 911 after hearing a man and a woman screaming louder and louder at each other.

The woman, Hernandez, cried out yelling for someone to call 911, Wilson testified.

“It just seemed like it was about to get worse,” said Wilson, who is Black.

Around the time Wilson called 911, Hernandez and Williams stopped their argument and Hernandez went over to Pentland’s house, ringing the doorbell and banging on the door, multiple witnesses said.

The case against Pentland

According to First Sgt. Walter Shawn McDaniels, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department employee who signed Pentland’s arrest warrant, the video speaks for itself.

In the video, Pentland physically towers over Williams, cursing and screaming for him to “get out” of the neighborhood. Williams, who speaks in a low, calm voice, takes an awkward step toward where other people, including Pentland’s wife, were standing in the grass. Williams motions his hand to point backward and focuses on the women behind Pentland. Pentland says to Williams, “That’s my wife you’re talking to.” Pentland then shoves him.

The defense argues Pentland was trying to protect his wife, but McDaniels, citing Pentland’s exact words, doesn’t believe that.

“The threat was him talking to his wife. The threat was not him walking toward his wife,” McDaniels said.

“In observing this video, I noticed there were several attempts for Mr. Williams to de-escalate,” McDaniels said.

The prosecution doubled-down on this point in the closing argument when assistant solicitor Paul Walton said the reason Pentland shoved Williams was because he lost his temper.

“His pride is hurt,” Walton said. “He’s a drill sergeant and he’s used to people doing what he says.”

It was the second of three times Pentland allegedly put his hands on Williams, witnesses said. The first was a separate, alleged shove that happened just minutes before the video — which was taken by one of Williams’ friends — started. The second was caught on video.

In the prosecution’s closing statements, they played body cam video from an officer who interviewed Pentland immediately following the incident in which Pentland said, “I apologize, I should not have gotten as aggressive as I did.”

Asked about the hours and days leading up to the altercation, McDaniels said those were closed cases and not relevant to the video evidence of Pentland shoving Williams.

The third altercation happened when Williams was walking away but holding the phone in Pentland’s direction. Prosecutors noted it’s legal to take video on a public street and said Pentland could have let him go at this point.

“Even if I wanted to scratch the first and second assault because they were near his wife and neighbors, at (the third) point he was walking away, and because he had his phone up lawfully, that’s an assault,” McDaniels said.

In defense of Pentland

From the perspective of the defense and several neighbors, Williams had been “belligerent” leading up to the evening of April 12. Pentland testified that when Hernandez went to get him, she told Pentland that Williams had been scaring women in the neighborhood.

When Pentland arrived, he saw Williams “in the face” of a neighbor and got between Williams.

Williams, witnesses say, was preparing to strike or verbally attack the women, who were three or four feet behind Pentland. As a result, Pentland pushed Williams to keep him from possibly hurting his wife or neighbors, he said.

“I would have never put my hands on him other than self-defense,” Pentland testified Monday.

At the end of the confrontation, when Williams was walking away, Williams points his phone at Pentland’s house and mentioned coming back, according to testimony from Pentland, Hernandez, Wilson and Pentland’s wife.

When his attorney asked Pentland if he saw this as a threat, he said, “It was a direct threat to me and my family, 100%…There was no question in my mind he was going to be back.”

Pentland then swatted the phone out of Williams’ hand. Pentland testified he didn’t physically touch Williams, but Williams said Pentland caught his arm.

“All I did was swat the phone out of his hand. I never, never want to break his phone,” Pentland said.

The defense also claimed police made several. mistakes in conducting the investigation. While on the stand, McDaniels admitted he did not obtain audio from the original 911 call to see why police were called in the first place.

As the video of the altercation went viral and drew backlash Lott decided to file charges against Pentland, even as Pentland was still being interviewed by an investigator, McDaniels testified Monday.

The defense argued this was political interference, but McDaniels said the evidence was strong enough against Pentland that he would have signed the arrest warrant even without Lott’s involvement.

The defense also alleged law enforcement failed to conduct a thorough investigation.

“In all these investigations, when the sheriff had already made a warrant, not one of them came and asked the people who lived there what happened,” Stitely said in his closing statement. “They didn’t want the truth. They wanted to make up a bully for TV’s sake.”

Throughout the trial, the defense kept asking the question “what would you do?” if someone were in Pentland’s position. For his part, Pentland stands by his actions.

“If I were in the situation I’d do the same thing again. I can’t let someone threaten my family,” Pentland testified.

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