“It’s been a nightmare,” he told the courtroom.
On trial for the murder of an unarmed black man, North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager told a jury how the incident destroyed his life. He showed no remorse for shooting an unarmed victim in the back, no remorse for raising his gun and firing at a man who posed no threat to anyone. Slager, who pleaded innocent to state murder charges, contends he fired in self-defense. To hear Slager tell it, he was the victim.
Despite offering a flurry of half-truths at best about a killing caught on tape, Slager may well get away with it. After all, he is a white police officer facing a nearly all-white jury in South Carolina. In the end, he might not even have to face looming federal civil-rights charges and may walk away a free man.
It started with a routine traffic stop and a broken tail light. The motorist fled across a parking lot, down a narrow street and through an open field. Moments later, 50-year-old Walter Scott was dead—shot five times in the back from at least 15 feet away.
“He must have been running for a reason,” Slager testified, as the trial entered its fifth week. “I saw that Taser coming at me,” he said. “I fired until the threat was stopped, like I’m trained to do.”
Except Scott was running toward a fence, facing away from the officer as he ran. He did not stop. He did not turn around. And there was nothing in his hands.
We know this because there are two separate videos of the incident—one taken from a squad car’s dash-cam and another captured by a witness’s cellphone—and neither supports Slager’s version of events. Then too, a 1985 Supreme Court ruling outlawed the use of deadly force against a fleeing suspect unless there is a specific and imminent threat to the officer or the surrounding community. In this case, there was none.
Whatever threat Slager might have perceived—real, imagined, or fabricated—at the time of the shooting, Scott was clearly running away from him. But, every defendant deserves a rigorous examination of the facts and Slager, represented by defense attorney Andy Savage, is getting his day in court.
In the wake of the incident, days after the bystander’s video was released and Slager was arrested, I traveled to North Charleston. Retracing Scott’s steps, I attempted to reconcile the unimaginable. I kneeled over a clump of flowers and teddy bears—a makeshift memorial marking the place Scott drew his last breath. I knew then what a witness, investigators, and prosecutors knew: Slager lied.
Slager was rightly fired and indicted after the videotapes emerged and his initial story to investigators unraveled. The only eyewitness in the case directly contradicted Slager’s testimony.
“Did you see Walter Scott coming at Officer Slager?” prosecutor Scarlett Wilson asked Feidin Santana, the young man who videoed the shooting on his cellphone.
“That never happened, ma’am,” Santana, who was on his way to work that day, answered.
There had been no threat. Scott was never close enough to grab for the officer’s service weapon or his Taser, as Slager has repeatedly claimed. In fact, after shooting the Navy veteran, Slager handcuffed him and then calmly walked several yards to retrieve his Taser. Slager can be seen on the video dropping the weapon next to the dead man’s body. He never once attempted to render medical aid. Had there been no witness, had there been no video, Slager would have gotten away with it—and he still might.
Over the course of the trial, defense lawyers have done everything possible to impeach Scott as a victim and argue that race had nothing to do with the incident. The defense attempted to introduce evidence that Scott was fired from a job after testing positive for cocaine and that he failed to make child-support payments despite earning $50,000 a year.
“All [the defense] wants to do is smear Mr. Scott’s character,” Chief Deputy Solicitor Bruce Durant said, according to the Post and Courier.
The judge in the case upheld the prosecution’s objections and kept that information from the jury.
As of now, Slager is also facing federal civil-rights charges. But after the election of Donald Trump and his nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions as the next U.S. attorney general, there is no guarantee that Slager will ever step foot into a federal courtroom. Sessions, if his previous legislative votes and actions as a prosecutor in Alabama are any indication, will likely drop the federal charges before he puts his briefcase down.
Thus, the only hope of justice for the Scott family—aside from a $6.5 million civil settlement from the City of North Charleston—rests in the hands of a local district attorney and a jury of 11 white people and one black man. It’s worth noting that of the nine potential jurors struck by the defense, seven were not white.
In South Carolina, the strictures of race and class are stark. The outcome of the Slager trial will almost certainly test those tensions.
Scott, who had been arrested multiple times for missed child-support payments, likely feared he would be taken into custody again. Whatever his failings as a father may have been, he did not deserve to die. The license plates on his car were traceable and, after identifying the driver, a warrant could have been issued for fleeing custody. There was no conceivable reason for Slager to chase Scott down and shoot him.
That may not be enough. After all, it only takes one holdout to hang the jury. The real questions become: Can the Scott family get justice in North Charleston? Can they get justice anywhere in America?
Despite the video tapes, I’ve never been sure that a conviction was guaranteed. Slager, who is facing a sentence of 30 years to life, could walk out of that courtroom a free man.
Slager said that he is living a nightmare, but it is Scott who will never wake up. And for that, Slager must answer.