Prosecutors and the defense lay out their cases in the trial of Michael Slager 

Duty and the Line of Fire

click to enlarge Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager stands alongside attorneys for the defense and prosecution in a Charleston courtroom on Nov. 3

Grace Beahm/Post & Courier

Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager stands alongside attorneys for the defense and prosecution in a Charleston courtroom on Nov. 3

Two minutes and 15 seconds: That's the length of time from the point when former North Charleston officer Michael Slager radioed that he was involved in a foot chase with Walter Scott and when he reported "Shots fired." It's during this brief window leading up to Scott's death that state prosecutors must prove that Slager acted with malice and forethought in the killing of Walter Scott. This is also the amount of time that Slager's attorneys must show that the officer was left on his own while fighting for his life in a part of North Charleston that is prone to violence. On the line is whether Slager will spend the next 30 years to life in prison without the possibility of release.

Opening arguments began Thursday in the state trial of the white former officer charged with the murder of a black motorist following a traffic stop for a malfunctioning third taillight. But before both sides had the opportunity to lay out their cases, a pivotal part of the trial had already taken place. The almost 190 potential jurors who reported to the Charleston County courthouse downtown had been whittled down to a final pool of 75 by Wednesday morning. Attorneys were given a limited number of strikes to remove candidates from the pool, until a final group of 12 jurors and six alternates was chosen. Of the 75 potential jurors from which they chose, white men outnumbered black men almost six to one. Approximately 73 percent of the total remaining prospective jurors were white and 21 percent were African American. These potential jurors were summoned from throughout Charleston County, which is 68 percent white and 28 percent African American.

Finally, the dozen men and women tasked with decided Slager's guilt or innocence was selected — six white men, five white women, and one black man. Seeing the racial makeup of the final jury, prosecutors challenged the defense, alleging a possible racial motivation in their use of strikes in excluding jurors. The defense — which used seven of nine strikes on minority candidates — then offered their specific reasons for removing potential jurors. Two were stricken due to admitted difficulty with the English language, one expressed anti-gun sentiments and felt he or she would spend too much time away from work, and another was a colleague of a witness. Of the other minority candidates removed from the pool by the defense, one was said to have lacked the necessary education to adequately serve and another did not properly complete an answer in the juror questionnaire.

After hearing the defense's reasons for striking potential jurors, the prosecution withdrew their challenge, but the demographics of the final jury would continue to raise complaints from those in the community. Last Wednesday, Elder James Johnson of the National Action Network claimed that the lack of minorities on the jury started the trial off on the wrong foot, sending a negative message to the community. But representatives for Walter Scott's family remained confident that justice would be carried out in the trial, regardless of the jurors' race.

"We've heard some comments that the jury, it being comprised of 11 white and one black, that people are worried. The family isn't at all. We aren't at all. Because the only thing that you need in this case is everything that those jurors have — two eyes and their brain," Chris Stewart, an attorney for the Scott family, said following the opening day of the trial.

Surrounded by the rest of the Scott family outside the county courthouse, Rodney Scott, Walter's youngest brother, added, "From the beginning, the Scott family humbled ourselves and we asked that justice do their job. And from this point, we're going to sit back and pray that justice will do their job. At the end, hopefully, we will get justice."

Serve and protect

click to enlarge Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson addresses the courtroom - GRACE BEAHM/POST & COURIER
  • Grace Beahm/Post & Courier
  • Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson addresses the courtroom

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson made no apologies for Walter Scott's decision to run from a routine traffic stop April 4, 2015. During opening arguments, the prosecution acknowledged that Scott was in violation of the law that day. Owing money on child support payments, the solicitor said Scott fled out of fear that he would wind up in a "debtors prison," but he deserved the same rights promised to all citizens. But Scott never had the opportunity to face trial.

"When Walter Scott ran and he resisted, he should have been prosecuted for it. He shouldn't have been killed for it," said Wilson. "Michael Slager had the duty of protecting Walter Scott and people like him, even from themselves — even from your own foolishness. That is part of their responsibility. Michael Slager also had the duty to tell the truth."

Another key part of the prosecution's argument is proving that Slager's first action following the shooting of Walter Scott was to set the scene to fit his account of what happened that day. Chasing Scott into a nearby empty lot, the former officer said a struggle occurred, during which Scott was able to wrestle away his Taser and attempt to turn it against him. For Wilson, the question of whether or not Scott had possession of the Taser is of no consequence since eyewitness video shows that Scott was well out of range to attack the officer when he was shot in the back five times. After handcuffing Scott's body, Wilson says the officer immediately began staging the scene — retrieving his Taser and placing it next to Scott — not knowing that his actions were being videotaped.

"First off, he said this was self defense. Walter Scott was coming at him with a Taser, and as he turned away he shot him. Everybody he talked to understood that. Everybody he talked to believed him ... He didn't know that that could be disproven by the video," Wilson told the jury. "And then he said, 'Walter Scott ran away with my Taser.' He didn't know that we could show that wasn't true."

On Friday, the video in question would be shown in court for the first time. The defense had fought to keep the video out of the trial, claiming that it was "unreliable, technically inadequate, limited in scope, and extremely unrepresentative of the events at issue" and arguing that the jury must only consider Slager's viewpoint in evaluating his use of force — not that of an eyewitness standing approximately 140 feet away. Of the almost 190 potential jurors questioned last Monday, nine said that they had never heard anything about the case through the media, through seeing the video, from friends, or from discussing the case in any way. Motions from the defense to have the video thrown out and prohibiting it from being shown in slow motion were ultimately dismissed by state Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman before Feidin Santana, the man who filmed the video, was called to testify.

Over the approximately five hours that Santana sat at the witness stand last Friday, he would recount his actions on the morning Scott was shot and answer for his decision to conduct nationally televised interviews, hire an agent, and accept donations that he used to purchase a car. Lead defense attorney Andy Savage would call Santana's behavior into question for the remainder of the day, painting the 25-year-old as an opportunist with an extreme distrust of police. Savage read aloud lyrics from songs written by Santana, such as, "It's all war, trouble, police abuse ... Those who defend us are the worst criminals. Who can I trust?"

Slager's defense

click to enlarge Feidin Santana, who filmed the video of Walter Scott's shooting, demonstrates the struggle he witnessed between Michael Slager and Scott - GRACE BEAHM/POST & COURIER
  • Grace Beahm/Post & Courier
  • Feidin Santana, who filmed the video of Walter Scott's shooting, demonstrates the struggle he witnessed between Michael Slager and Scott

For Andy Savage, Michael Slager was just an officer trying to do his job against insurmountable odds. According to Savage, it shouldn't have taken more than a minute and a half for Slager's backup to arrive the day Scott was killed. With his fellow officers on vacation or tasked with simple errands that pulled them from their usual posts, Slager was on his own when he sprinted from his patrol car in pursuit of Scott. But according to Savage, the former officer remains at a severe disadvantage in terms of overcoming dual prosecutions from state and federal investigators and a nationwide distrust of those who choose to wear a badge.

"The presumption of innocence means that in 2014, 2015, 2016, the climate in this country and the focus of the media in this country often spoke to incidents of policemen involved in the apprehension of the suspect that resulted in the death of the suspect," Savage told the jury. "It's in the news all the time. It's also in the news that over 65 or 66 law enforcement officials just this year ... on the job lost their lives as a result of violent behavior. That's the world outside. You can't, I don't expect anybody to erase that from their mind because you know that."

But asking that they judge the case and Slager's actions based only on what they hear and see in the courtroom, Savage remains convinced that the jury will find his client innocent of the charges levelled against him.

"It's your sworn oath to decide this case based on the facts and the law that the judge gives you. And I have every bit of confidence that you will do it in a non-impulsive, thoughtful, dispassionate manner," Savage said to the 12 jurors. "Looking for what the state has chosen in this case. The state has chosen to make their burden that this was an act of malice ... And when you look for the malice and you look for any premeditated or planned deliberate act, either when he got up that morning, when he stopped the vehicle, over the course of the chase, or even as the fatal shot was fired, I'm convinced that this was not a malicious, deliberate, planned, or premeditated act."


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