Attorneys for the state rest their case in the trial of Michael Slager 

Malice and Forethought

click to enlarge bill-williams-and-scarlett-wilson-2.jpg

Grace Beahm/Post and Courier

At 4:12 p.m. on Wed. Nov. 16, the prosecution rested its case in the trial of the State of South Carolina versus Michael Thomas Slager. Over nine days, prosecutors called a total of 32 witnesses in an effort to prove that Slager, a former North Charleston police officer, was guilty of both malice and forethought when he killed Walter Scott following a traffic stop more than 18 months ago.

Over the first nine days, jurors heard from those closest to Scott both in life and in death — from family and friends, to the officers who investigated the scene and circumstances of his shooting. Earlier in the trial, Dr. Lee Marie Tormos, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on Scott, detailed the five bullet wounds that ended the 50-year-old's life. One shot grazed his right ear. Another bullet passed through Scott's right shoulder, grazing his collar bone before exiting. With photos of Scott's body on display in the courtroom, Tormos identified the fatal shot as the one that pierced Scott's lung and the sack around his heart.

"We need an intact heart to be able to beat, and his perforations to his heart made him bleed out internally into the chest cavities," said Tormos, who added that someone suffering such a wound would not be expected to live for more than a few minutes at most. It is during these few minutes that Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson aims to prove that Slager had already begun setting the scene to support the story he would later share with investigators. It is on this claim that much of the prosecution's case hinges.

Just days following the shooting, Slager and his former attorney, David Aylor, met with SLED agents to share his account of what had led to Scott's death. Following a foot chase, Slager said he was able to incapacitate Scott with his Taser, but a struggle soon followed. It is during this alleged fight that Slager says Scott was able to wrestle away his Taser and turn the weapon against him. Called to testify last week regarding Slager's meeting with SLED agents was Levi Miles. An investigator for Slager's attorney at the time, Miles played the role of Scott as Slager acted out his version of what happened prior to the shooting.

Stepping down from the witness stand during questioning by prosecutors, Miles laid facedown on the courtroom floor to demonstrate Scott's position after being tased by Slager. Working his way back through the re-enactment that he carried out with Slager more than a year ago in Aylor's office, Miles then rolled over and extended his hands to indicate the struggle that Slager said took place. Contrary to previous allegations made during the trial, Miles claims that at no point did Slager say that Scott was able to deploy the Taser by pressing it to Slager's chest.

click to enlarge Michael Slager looks on during week three of his trial - GRACE BEAHM/POST AND COURIER
  • Grace Beahm/Post and Courier
  • Michael Slager looks on during week three of his trial

SLED agent Angela Peterson, the case investigator and one of two agents present that day to question Slager, said she was told that the officer feared for his life. Worried that Scott would use the Taser to incapacitate him and take his pistol, Slager said he stepped back and opened fire. Following their interview, Peterson says those present spent the next 45 minutes examining her notes of Slager's story before approving the narrative provided, and the meeting ended.

Returning several hours later, Peterson presented an eyewitness video that showed Scott running away from Slager as he opened fire. During questioning by the prosecution last week, Miles testified that the video was in stark contrast to the events he had acted out with the former officer. Facing a harsh cross-examination from lead defense attorney Andy Savage, Miles admitted that he had not taken an active role in investigating the events of the shooting and his memory of certain events involving the case were spotty.

Savage dedicated a great deal of time to chronicling the various holes in Peterson's account of her investigation. In previous hearings, the defense has been highly critical of the agent's level of experience when she began working on Slager's case, noting that Peterson had received no training specific to homicide investigation prior to June 2015. Peterson failed to answer many of Savage's questions regarding the gathering and testing of evidence.

Chief among the defense's concerns is the missing fourth Taser prong that was never collected. According to Slager, he fired his Taser at Scott twice during their chase. On the first shot, only one of two prongs was able to connect. Reloading his Taser, Slager said he fired again, this time connecting with both prongs and incapacitating Scott. Peterson testified that DNA evidence was not collected from the recovered prongs. When questioned as to why she believes that Scott was ever truly subdued by Taser fire, Peterson referenced the narrative of that day's events provided by Slager, the legitimacy of which has been challenged by prosecutors throughout the trial. The agent also admitted that the Taser wasn't photographed or examined for trace evidence before being sent to the manufacturer for analysis.

click to enlarge Ninth Circuit court solicitor scarlett wilson reviews video evidence
  • Ninth Circuit court solicitor scarlett wilson reviews video evidence

By the close of the cross-examination, Savage had challenged the credibility of Peterson's investigation, noting a change between her initial notes — that stated Slager had the Taser pointed at him and was in fear for his life — and a later report that described Scott as the person fleeing from the Taser after the struggle.

"The summary doesn't reflect what Mr. Slager said. It reflects the opposite," said Savage.

But the prosecution's toughest battle would come with the testimony of Bill Williams, who was tasked with creating a comprehensive timeline of the shooting and the distance between Scott and Slager when the officer opened fire. Much of last Tuesday was spent trying to determine Williams' qualifications as an expert witness. As the owner of a forensic consulting business, he 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 as 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.

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 and declared that Williams should have never been certified as an expert.

Solicitor Wilson continued fighting to have Williams included as one of the state's final witnesses, 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. Judge Newman ultimately found him fit to testify as an expert witness, but his testimony would only draw more scrutiny from the defense.

Through his examination of the eyewitness video, Williams estimates that Scott was 17 feet from Slager when the officer opened fire and twice that distance away when the seventh shot was fired. Under cross examination by the defense, McCune pointed out that the image created by Williams depicting Scott at the point each shot was fired had been stretched to fit the display screen. Williams admitted the error, but stood by his work, saying, "Inches don't make a difference, in my opinion."

With the reliability of Williams' presentation called into question, the prosecution called a final witness. James Tallon, the SLED agent who had created a three-dimensional scan of the scene of the shooting, took the stand to walk the jury through a virtual recreation of the scene, starting from the point of the traffic stop and ending approximately 582 feet away where the shooting occurred.

As the prosecution rested its case, the defense called for a directed verdict in Slager's favor. Defense attorney Andy Savage argued that the prosecution had failed to prove malice on the part of Slager. Attorney Chad Simpson with the prosecution countered the defense's claim by saying that Slager's immediate grabbing of the Taser following the shooting was indicative of a man attempting to set the scene of a crime in his favor and again called into question Slager's decision to shoot Scott in the back. For the defense, these actions remained justified.

"The state ignores the fact that Officer Slager was working as a police officer at the time. The court's view of his actions on that day cannot be viewed the same as a Saturday night killing or a typical murder case, but must be viewed through the eyes of a reasonable police officer at the time he determined to use lethal force," said Savage.

But Judge Newman was unswayed by the defense's motion. For Newman, the guilt or innocence of Michael Slager remains up to the jury to decide.

"In this case, the evidence in the record indicates that, if believed by the jury ... construing this evidence in the light most favorable to the state as I am required, shows the defendant shot the victim in the back while running away," said Newman. "The jury can infer an evil intent. The jury can infer hostility. The jury can infer malice. Add the additional factor of use of a deadly weapon, at this stage in the proceedings, malice can be inferred through the use of a deadly weapon. Of course that inference may change depending on what the defense is offering."


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