Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Prosecution struggles to prove legitimacy of expert witness in Michael Slager trial

Defense challenges qualifications

Posted by Dustin Waters on Tue, Nov 15, 2016 at 4:44 PM

click to enlarge Lead prosecutor Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson - GRACE BEAHM/POST AND COURIER
  • Grace Beahm/Post and Courier
  • Lead prosecutor Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson
The prosecution was met with strong resistance Tuesday as they tried to prove the qualifications of their final expert witness in the trial of former North Charleston officer Michael Slager.

Bill Williams, owner of a forensic consulting business, was called to testify as an expert in the field of forensic scene analysis and recreation. In listing his qualifications, Williams cited years of professional experience and told the court that he had spent more than 500 hours compiling a timeline of the events leading up to the shooting of Walter Scott.

By examining recordings from the dash camera of Slager’s patrol car, his police radio, and Feidin Santana’s eyewitness video of the shooting, Williams presented his point-by-point approximation of the order of events, as well the proximity of the two men when Slager opened fire. Compiling the various pieces of footage with police dispatch recordings from multiple officers, Williams played a video for state Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman that included an animated scene of Scott running from Slager into an empty lot before their struggle. The jury was not present during Williams’ testimony Tuesday, as Judge Newman had still not decided if he could serve as an expert witness.

For hours, attorneys for Slager challenged the potential witness’ ability to testify as an expert, citing his lack of formal education or training in the field of forensics and video analysis. Williams stood by his years of experience and self-training, even asserting that his measurements of the scene were more accurate than those taken by SLED investigators.

Defense attorney Donald McCune grilled Williams regarding a previous trial in which he had testified as an expert witness. In 2010, the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned the ruling in a case against the Ford Motor Company. During that trial, Williams offered testimony as an expert on automobile cruise-control systems in regard to the Ford Explorer.

In finding that the trial court made a mistake by allowing Williams’ testimony, the state Supreme Court stated, “In our view, there is no evidence to support the trial court’s qualification of Williams as an expert in cruise control systems. Williams had no knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education specifically related to cruise control systems. Rather, it appears he merely studied the Explorer’s system just before trial, which he indicated in his testimony to the jury: “This is how I taught myself the [Explorer’s] cruise control, or speed control system.”

Lead prosecutor Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson continued fighting to have Williams included as her final witness, stating that he “has skills that the common man doesn’t have” and mentioning the hundreds of crime and accident scenes that Williams has examined. Citing the state Supreme Court’s ruling regarding Williams’ previous testimony in the Ford case, Judge Newman questioned the solicitor’s confidence in Williams, but ultimately found him fit to testify as an expert witness.

Williams is expected to take the stand in full view of the jury Wednesday morning as the prosecution closes their case.

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