In six seconds on the morning of Aug. 9, 2022, the lives of a Richland County Sheriff’s deputy and a Richland County teen changed forever.
Deputy Sarah Merriman, then a K-9 officer with the department’s Special Response Team, responded to a call about a car stolen from an Orangeburg apartment complex and was sitting outside of Fast Cash and Pawn on Two Notch Road.
As the deputy stepped out of her cruiser, which she’d parked behind the stolen Ford Focus with its lights still flashing, she barely had time to say “hands!” and draw her gun before the car went into reverse, Merriman told a Richland County Court on Tuesday. Merriman was crushed against her own vehicle.
On Tuesday, the driver of the car, 18-year-old Jamon Cheatham was sentenced to 10 years in prison following a plea agreement between his attorney and the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, represented in court by Paul Walton. The plea averts a trial, which could have been scheduled as early as next week.
Judge Robert Hood sentenced Cheatham, who was 17 at the time of the incident, to five years in prison for the theft of the vehicle and ten years for assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. The sentences will run concurrently. Cheatham received 456 days of credit for time served in the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.
Cheatham was charged with attempted murder, but that was dropped as part of the plea deal.
In sentencing, Hood reflected that he took both Cheatham’s age and lack of an adult criminal record, as well as the severity of Merriman’s injuries seriously in deciding whether to accept the negotiated plea deal.
“Mr. Cheatham, you are a very young man, I give that serious consideration. There’s a big difference between a 17-year old and a 30 or 40-year old,” Hood said, telling Cheatham that when he is released he will have “a lot of good years of life ahead.”
Cheatham was arrested almost immediately after striking Merriman with his car. Deputies broke his windows with batons and arrested the teen.
After Cheatham’s arrest, he immediately asked whether Merriman, who was rushed to the hospital was all right, Hope Demer, his attorney said.
Cheatham was a bright, driven young man who came from an unstable home and grew up witnessing domestic violence, Demer told the court. He has two younger siblings and started working in lawn care at 13 years old. He’d obtained his GED certificate at 16, Demer said.
Given a chance to speak, Cheatham, who appeared in court in a navy blue jail jump suit and Nike sneakers, simply said in a quiet voice: “I just want to apologize again.” Since his arrest, his attorney told the court that Cheatham had written, but never sent several letters apologizing to Merriman.
“You’re at a big turning point,” Hood told Cheatham, warning the teen that if he did not see this as an opportunity for change, “you’re either going to end up in custody for the rest of your life or end up deceased.”
But despite having no adult criminal record Cheatham had an extensive juvenile record, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told the court.
Lott has previously described Cheatham, who had previously been charged with attempted murder and once failed to turn up for juvenile court, as a poster boy of a broken “catch and release” judicial system.
“He was on a crime spree,” said Lott, who said that it was necessary to send a message to young people that they would be punished for their crimes. “The only way we’re going to protect our citizens and our deputies is to keep these people in jail.”
Among her injuries, Merriman suffered a broken hip, a build up of fluid in her bone marrow and damage to her skull, which has left her with numbness.
Merriman’s view on life has been forever changed, she said. Now an investigator, Merriman told the court and assembled media that she continues to wrestle with the gravity of what happened.
“It is so hard to really put into words, just everything that has happened and how that incident has impacted my life,” Merriman told the court. “I think the biggest lasting impact has been the “what-ifs that day: What if I had taken two different steps? What if I had reacted a second slower? What if any small thing had gone differently that day?”
While it hadn’t changed her love for the job, which she always knew came with risks, Merriman reflected that she could never look at those risks the same way.
“You could wake up one day and go to work and either not come home or something significant could happen to you, it could change the rest of your life. I carry that with me every day,” Merriman said.