Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Officers detail the scene of Walter Scott's shooting

Defense calls crime scene investigation a failure

Posted by Dustin Waters on Tue, Nov 8, 2016 at 4:29 PM

click to enlarge Attorney Andy Savage questions former North Charleston police officer Clarence Habersham - GRACE BEAHM/POST AND COURIER
  • Grace Beahm/Post and Courier
  • Attorney Andy Savage questions former North Charleston police officer Clarence Habersham
As the trial of former North Charleston officer Michael Slager continues in its second week, law enforcement officials called to the stand recounted the scene of the shooting on the day Walter Scott was killed.

Monday began with the defense questioning of Clarence Habersham, the former North Charleston officer who was the first to respond to the scene following Slager’s call for backup. Habersham was assigned to assist Slager in patrolling the Charleston Farms area, but he had been dispatched to pick up a bench warrant when he heard Slager radio for assistance. Rushing to the scene, Habersham arrived to find Scott’s body lying on the ground, handcuffed. Habersham removed the handcuffs and cut off Scott’s shirt to provide emergency medical assistance, but there was no response.

Lead defense attorney Andy Savage has been highly critical of the North Charleston Police Department’s management of personnel on the morning of the shooting. With as many as half of the officers usually assigned to patrol the central and southern sections of North Charleston off duty and Habersham and another officer responding to calls from dispatch, Savage argues that Slager was the only officer “available for service” at the time of the shooting. As was the case during pretrial hearings, Savage claimed on Monday that the North Charleston Police Department did not instate a mandatory minimum manpower requirement until July 2016.

Responding to questioning from Savage regarding the importance of immediate assistance, Habersham testified that having more than one officer on the scene increases a suspect’s willingness to comply.

“It’s your practice as it is the other patrol officers in North Charleston when they hear somebody is being stopped for a traffic violation to go in that direction,” Savage said during his cross examination of Habersham. “Because you look out for each other. You protect each other because in a traffic stop you never know what it is going to bring. Could be nothing. Could be a shooting.”

With the defense continuing to assert that more officers on the scene that day would have led to a different outcome, prosecutors turned questioning toward Slager’s decision to use force in trying to apprehend Scott. An examination of Slager’s Taser showed that on the day of his chase with Scott, the weapon was activated seven times — once first thing in the morning as Slager tested the Taser, and six times during his altercation with Scott, who was attempting to flee the scene of a traffic stop on foot. Prosecutors would later reveal that Slager had used his Taser to subdue suspects a total of 14 times over four years, compared to Habersham, who used his Taser three times over a nine-year period.

Savage rejected this line of questioning, saying that “to compare one police officer to another police officer is meaningless,” adding that different officers are faced with varying threats and situations. During his testimony, Habersham described Slager as a “proactive” officer, but said he was reluctant to label him as aggressive.

Just as was the case on the day when they responded to the scene of the shooting, Habersham was followed by Lt. Daniel Bowman and Sgt. James Gann. Bowman was patrolling the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood when he heard Slager’s call for assistance. Rushing to the scene, Bowman arrived to find Slager with abrasions on his knees and a cut on his finger. Slager claimed that Scott had taken hold of his Taser during a brief struggle and turned the weapon against him. It was at this point that Slager said he opened fire.

Like the other officers who spoke with Slager after the shooting, this was the story he presented to his fellow officers that day. Judging by Slager’s appearance following the incident, Bowman testified that he looked “disheveled” and looked to have just been in a ground fight. Sgt. Gann, a master Taser instructor, explained that officers are taught to use their best judgement on when and how to use their non-lethal weapons to subdue a suspect. When asked by prosecutors if Slager and other North Charleston officers are trained to shoot a fleeing suspect in the back as they run away, Gann responded simply by saying, “No.”

Tuesday’s court proceedings focused on the officers tasked with examining the scene of the shooting. Crime scene investigators with the North Charleston Police Department, Scott Wyant and Jacqueline Ong, assisted in securing the scene and coordinating with SLED agents assessing the scene. Wyant described having a friendly relationship with Slager and photographed the former officer that day as evidence. Ong took on the duty of photographing the overall area in which the shooting took place. The crime scene log shows that at least 20 people were present to collect evidence, secure the area, and perform other tasks related to the investigation led by SLED agents.

The later half of Tuesday’s court proceedings were dedicated to the testimony of Almon Brown, the former SLED forensics expert who examined the scene of the shooting. It was during Brown’s testimony that photos of Walter Scott’s body were shown in the courtroom. Brown, after discussing the graphic photos of Scott’s body, said that he grew concerned over the location of the bullet wounds in Scott’s back because his findings did not adhere to the briefing that he received on the day of the shooting.

With the threat of rain and Scott’s body left lying in a bed of ants, investigators hurried to collect evidence while preserving the scene. The defense alleges that agents may have been careless in their haste. From not examining Slager’s shoes and Taser wires, to being unable to locate all the bullet casings and the final missing Taser probe, Savage said the investigation was indicative of a failure on the part of the state of South Carolina and that the jury has been provided with incomplete evidence.

As court was adjourned, a spokesman for the Charleston Police Department announced that the Charleston County Judicial Center, which includes the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office and the Charleston County Courthouse, received four bomb threats on Tuesday as Slager's trial was underway. Law enforcement agencies searched the buildings and they were deemed safe. No buildings were evacuated, and the threats are under investigation.

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