|Just as well they waited until Monday. Otherwise we would have had weekend riots. |
Jurors Unable to Agree in Trial of South Carolina Officer Who Shot Walter Scott
As prosecutors and Mr. Slager’s defense lawyers consider their options, they are certain to consider the feedback that emerged from a jury that appeared bitterly divided during deliberations that began on Wednesday. In a letter to Judge Newman on Friday, a single juror said he could not “in good conscience consider a guilty veridct.”
But the jury’s foreman, the only black member of the panel, said in a separate note to the judge that the group was mostly in agreement that Mr. Slager should be convicted: “It’s just one juror that has the issues.” The foreman also said, “That juror needs to leave. He is having issues.”
The outcome in the Slager case is similar to the resolutions in other recent trials involving claims of police misconduct. This fall, a jury in Cincinnati deadlocked in the case of a university police officer who fatally shot a motorist who was black and unarmed. Here in South Carolina, juries twice deadlocked when considering charges against a rural police chief who fatally shot an unarmed black man. And in December 2015, the trial of a Baltimore police officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray ended in a mistrial. (After a judge, ruling in bench trials, cleared other Baltimore officers, the prosecutor there dropped all of the criminal cases in the matter of Mr. Gray’s death.)
The shooting in North Charleston surged to the forefront of the national debate within days of Mr. Scott’s death, which a bystander, Feidin Santana, recorded on his cellphone while he walked to work.
Video Shows Fatal Police Shooting
In video provided to The New York Times, a police officer in North Charleston, S.C., is seen shooting an apparently unarmed man after a scuffle following a traffic stop.
April 7, 2015. . Watch in Times Video »
The video began only after Mr. Scott fled on foot from a traffic stop from a broken taillight, but it was shocking and vivid. In the recording, the men engage in a struggle, and then, as Mr. Scott runs away, Mr. Slager raises his Glock handgun and fires eight shots. Mr. Scott falls to the ground. When Mr. Slager began to fire, Mr. Scott was at least 17 feet away.
Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina said Mr. Slager had “betrayed” the public trust. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, described the video as “awfully hard to watch.” And North Charleston’s police chief, Eddie Driggers, said he was “sickened by what he saw.”
On Wednesday, the chief prosecutor for Charleston County, Scarlett A. Wilson, credited the video with leading to the criminal case. “Thank goodness we have a camera because it’s not just memory that matters,” she said as Mr. Santana listened from the courtroom’s gallery.
Mr. Scott’s death came as the country grappled with a series of disputed police killings, but the aftermath in North Charleston was unusual in that the officer was quickly charged with a crime, shifting the case into a courtroom and setting up what would become a four-week trial.
To prosecutors, Mr. Slager was an anomaly of law enforcement, a police officer who strayed far from his duties and oath when he opened fire and, they contended, tried to stage the scene to make the shooting appear justified.
“Our whole criminal justice system rides on the back of law enforcement,” Ms. Wilson said during her closing argument. “They have to be held accountable when they mess up. It is very, very rare, but it does happen.”
Ms. Wilson said the defense had opted for a strategy filled with “lots of smoke” and “lots of mirrors,” but she also acknowledged, from the very beginning of the trial, that she felt Mr. Scott had contributed to his own death by running from the police.
“If Walter Scott had stayed in that car, he wouldn’t have been shot,” Ms. Wilson said. “He paid the extreme consequence for his conduct. He lost his life for his foolishness.”
Ms. Wilson’s concession, which she made during her opening statement, was something of an effort to immunize the prosecution from the theory the defense advanced throughout the trial: that Mr. Scott had acted in ways that made Mr. Slager fear for his life. In his closing argument, Mr. Slager’s lead defense lawyer, Andrew J. Savage III, said Mr. Scott had left the officer with little choice after he “made decisions to attack a police officer.”
“Should he have assumed that an unarmed man would have attacked a police officer?” Mr. Savage said of Mr. Slager, who he complained had been made a “poster boy” of police misconduct claims because of controversial killings in other parts of the country.
Mr. Slager advanced a similar argument on the witness stand, when he testified that he had “fired until the threat was stopped, like I’m trained to do.”
The jury here in Charleston had three options, besides deadlocking: a conviction for murder, a conviction of voluntary manslaughter or an acquittal. In South Carolina, a murder conviction can lead to a life sentence, and manslaughter carries a prison term of two to 30 years.
The jury’s verdict, whenever it came, was certain to revive the storm that surrounded North Charleston, a city of about 108,000 people, after Mr. Scott’s death.
The city was long known as a place with an aggressive law enforcement strategy that was implemented by a largely white police force. Motorists and pedestrians faced frequent stops for minor violations, and the police increased their presence, especially in high-crime areas that happened to be predominantly black neighborhoods.
The approach, community leaders said, eroded trust, and North Charleston’s Police Department is now the subject of Justice Department review as part of a “collaborative reform process.”
A different arm of the Justice Department is involved in a different legal battle for Mr. Slager, who has been accused in a federal indictment of violating Mr. Scott’s civil rights, and the Justice Department must now decide whether to move forward.
In North Charleston, officials have insisted that Mr. Slager was an outlier. They condemned the shooting of Mr. Scott and reached a $6.5 million settlement with his family.
Mr. Slager was fired after the shooting and jailed for months without bond. After his release, he spent many of his days at Mr. Savage’s office, preparing for the trial.
Mr. Scott’s family, too, passed the months waiting for Mr. Slager’s day in court, expressing confidence but also a measure of worry.
“Even with everything we have, I know that it’s going to be hard and it’s going to be challenging,” Anthony Scott, one of Walter Scott’s brothers, said in an interview before the trial. “But I think we have a better case than what Slager has. I think our case is a lot stronger.”