CHARLESTON — When a bystander’s video emerged of South Carolina policeman Michael Slager shooting an unarmed suspect five times in the back, he was quick to be charged with the killing, fired from his job, and condemned by a healthy portion of the general public.
Now a court will consider whether to convict Slager of murder.
Opening arguments began Thursday at the Charleston County Courthouse, with prosecutors claiming Slager unnecessarily shot Walter Scott dead before attempting to frame him and lying to police investigators. Slager’s defense lawyer argued that Scott provoked Slager by fleeing from a traffic stop and then attempted to take the officer’s Taser during a physical confrontation, potentially endangering Slager’s life.
Slager was on patrol on the morning of Saturday, April 4, 2015, when he spotted Scott driving a 1991 Mercedes with a broken taillight. He pulled the car over but Scott soon fled, leading Slager on a foot chase. A bystander’s video captures part of the pursuit, showing Scott and Slager tussling before Scott turns again to run. Slager then fires eight shots at Scott, killing the 50-year-old suspect as five bullets hit their mark.
Days later, after the bystander publicly produced a video of the shooting, Slager was swiftly charged and fired. North Charleston’s mayor and police chief, both white men, were praised for their quick action and resolve in a community long frustrated by racial tension between the police and the black community. To those frustrated by the seemingly routine occurrence of white cops shooting unarmed black men in the United States, here at least were a group of leaders unwilling to tolerate what they labeled an unjust killing.
On Thursday, Slager’s defense team argued that the encounter was more nuanced and that he was not guilty of murder. Lead defense attorney Andy Savage challenged what he deemed were assumptions made by the prosecution, including the contention that Scott was merely fleeing to avoid arrest for missed child support payments.
“That’s pure speculation to fit the narrative that the state wants you to believe,” said Savage, noting that Slager, hot in pursuit, could not have known Scott was unarmed or the reason why he may have been running and what his next course of action might be.
“Why did he run? Why did he choose not to respect the request to stay where he was?” asked Savage. “He didn’t just run. He physically and forcefully resisted to the extent that they were both fighting on the ground.”
Scott’s DNA was found on Slager’s Taser. Charleston County Solicitor Scarlett Wilson explained this away, however, by arguing that Scott was only reflexively pushing the Taser away from his body since Slager first shot him with the weapon and then painfully stabbed, or “drive-stunned,” him with the device at close range, using “pain compliance” to subdue the suspect.
Savage suggested it was “preposterous” that Slager intentionally sought to harm Scott as he began his day’s patrol. Savage sought to humanize his client during his opening statement, mentioning Slager rising early in the morning to prepare for patrol duty, kissing his children and bidding goodbye to his pregnant wife.
With a heavy thud Savage dropped a bulletproof vest and other police equipment on a courtroom table, explaining how every day Slager and other policeman don 25 pounds of protective gear before they start their shifts. Savage mentioned Slager’s years of service in the Coast Guard, and touted his reputation of supposed “excellence” during five year’s of police work in North Charleston. He challenged the jury to detect any bit of hostility or malice directed toward Scott from Slager, to find “anything but a police officer exercising his instructions, his duties as a police officer, in an absolute professional and unemotional way.”
Prosecutor Wilson painted a different picture of the former policeman. Slager, she argued to the jury, violated his duties as a policeman, first by responding inappropriately and excessively to a suspect fleeing from a minor traffic stop.
“Michael Slager had the duty of protecting Walter Scott and people like him even from themselves, even from their own foolishness, that is his responsibility,” said Wilson.
Moreover, Wilson argued, “Michael Slager also had the duty to tell the truth.”
Wilson claimed Slager lied about his actions to investigators while also trying to pick up and relocate the Taser that Slager claimed Scott tried to grab. The prosecutor was confident the bystander’s video would expose Slager’s mistruths.
“He didn’t know that we could show that wasn’t true. He didn’t know we would show that,” said Wilson. “He didn’t know that we would be able to show that taser was twelve feet behind (Scott).”
Wilson said the policeman exhibited no concern for his shooting victim, but rather solely for himself.
“Michael Slager’s first instinct wasn’t to give CPR, it wasn’t to give first aid, it was to stage [the crime scene],” she said.
Even if Scott had resisted to some extent, he should not have been shot dead, argued Wilson.
“Provocation is not the same as justification,” she said.
Matching Savage’s dramatic drop of the bulletproof vest, Wilson maneuvered around the small courtroom, illustrating how far Scott was from Slager as the policeman fired eight shots. Wilson first stood 17 feet away from the jurors, then 35, and finally 50 feet, where Scott fell dead. At none of these distances, she said, did the unarmed Scott pose a danger to Slager.