What the Slager mistrial says about our criminal justice system 

Bracing for the Hit: Part II

So now we have it, confirmation of what many had feared would happen all along. When presented with clear video evidence showing an unarmed man getting shot multiple times in the back by a police office, a jury of 12 of Walter Scott's "peers" could not agree that it was a crime. Before we begin to list all the reasons why this outcome is so disheartening, let's recap the few things we all know after having seen the video:

1. North Charleston police officer Michael Slager was armed with a semi-automatic Glock pistol at the time of Walter Scott's death.

2. Walter Scott was completely unarmed at the time of his shooting and was running away from Slager at the time he was shot.

3. Scott was at least 17 feet away from Slager when he was shot several times in the back.

Regardless of what happened prior to the video, these basic facts should have presented a strong presumption of guilt for any defendant to overcome. The only question for a jury should have been whether Slager's shooting of Scott was justified under the law. That we were able to hear Slager's side of the story and scrutinize his justification for his actions makes the jury's failure to convict all the more incredible.

To hear Slager tell it, he shot Scott because he was scared to death and feared for his life. By shooting Scott, he was doing what he was trained to do as a police officer. Ponder that for a moment. Self-defense is certainly a justifiable reason to kill someone if the shooter is in imminent danger of grievous bodily harm or loss of life. In the Slager case, an armed and trained law enforcement professional supposedly was in fear for his life when faced with a retreating unarmed man at least 17 feet away. In what parallel universe does this even make sense? If a police officer can reasonably and plausibly claim self-defense in this circumstance, in what situation would an officer not be able to claim self-defense? It strains credibility to think that a policeman felt he was in any type of danger in Slager's situation. Yet, that is what some jurors had to believe in order to conclude that Slager's shooting was justified.

Secondly, assuming Slager was in fear for his life, why were so many gunshots necessary to stop the threat? Would it not have been possible to disable or incapacitate a retreating assailant without the use of lethal force? By any measure, eight shots seems excessive unless the shooter was trying to kill the victim. Even accounting for adrenaline and the emotions of an intense situation, we should expect that our law enforcement members receive sufficient training to avoid using lethal force unless absolutely necessary. No matter how afraid Slager said he was, the high number of shots he took to subdue Scott in a de-escalating situation should have been a big red flag to any jury. Just not enough of a red flag, apparently, to convict.

Lastly, we have to abandon the notion that Scott somehow deserved to be shot because he was running away from a police officer. Even the prosecution, in its closing argument and comments to the media, suggested that none of this might have happened had Scott simply remained seated in his car. Of course, we know that this is not true. There have been two recent cases, also caught on video, where unarmed black males have been shot by police when sitting in a car or remaining stationary with their hands up. Had Scott been aware of either of those instances, it may have played a factor in his decision to run from Slager. In either event, while running from the police may be a crime, it is not a capital offense. Nor does the fact that someone is running away give an officer the license to kill.

The discouraging aspect of this outcome is that even though the case will be retried, there is absolutely no reason to expect a different result next time. The evidence will be absolutely the same, and if anything, the defense will have had a test run to determine which arguments were most persuasive to jurors. Historical evidence suggests that police officers have carte blanche to kill black suspects, especially when those individuals have a criminal record. If this doesn't trouble you, it should because if the right to due process and a fair trial for being shot by law enforcement is not absolute for all Americans, then it really isn't absolute for any of us. Which may not matter until it's your father, son, or brother who is the one that's been killed.

Dwayne Green is an attorney practicing in downtown Charleston. He received a bachelor's degree in Politics from Princeton University and his law degree from the University of Iowa. He is the former Assistant Corporate Counsel for the City of Charleston and a past chair of the Charleston Board of Architectural Review.


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