Former South Carolina Police Officer Takes The Stand In Murder Trial

Nov 29, 2016
Originally published on November 29, 2016 6:23 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Charleston, S.C., today the defense rested in the case of a former police officer charged with murdering a fleeing driver. Michael Slager shot 50-year-old Walter Scott repeatedly as Scott fled a traffic stop back in 2015. A bystander captured part of the incident on cell-phone video. And today Slager took the stand and testified about his version of events. South Carolina Public Radio's Alexandra Olgin has been in the courthouse. She joins us now. And Alexandra, this is one of the few times Michael Slager has spoken - right? - about the events of that day.

ALEXANDRA OLGIN, BYLINE: Yeah, exactly. And under questioning from his own defense attorney today, he got pretty emotionally choked up. He wiped tears away a couple times. He talked about what led up to this confrontation. I'm starting with this traffic stop for a broken brake light - and how - Walter Scott after he pulled him over. And then he testified about the struggle that happened off-camera. Slager, who's white, testified he was afraid of Scott, who's black, because he gained control of the officer's Taser during his ground struggle. And here's what Slager said.

MICHAEL SLAGER: Mr. Scott took the Taser - coming after me while we were on the ground in the chest area - and then us breaking apart as I was standing up. And then coming at me again - you know, it was total fear that Mr. Scott didn't stop.

OLGIN: And Slager, actually, then stood up and demonstrated how he saw Scott coming at him with this Taser. And this is the point where this bystander video begins, showing Scott running away from Officer Slager and then Officer Slager planting his feet and shooting repeatedly at Scott as he runs away.

CORNISH: Now, it's unusual for a defendant, especially one in such a high-profile case, to take the stand. What did the prosecution question him about?

OLGIN: Well, first, they had him read this oath that he took as an officer about what situations he can use deadly force - and which he said - you know, only in defense of a human life, including your own as an officer. Now, Officer Slager said he had trouble remembering certain specifics of the entire ground struggle because he said his mind was like spaghetti.

He also said at the time the distance, which we now know is 18 feet, that Scott was away from Slager when Slager began firing. He said it seemed a lot closer. Now, the prosecutor actually had Slager get off the stand, come down on the floor of the courtroom in front of the jury and demonstrate how far 18 feet was with a tape measure. And Slager said, yeah, it looks far. But you have to remember that Scott could turn around in a couple seconds and come right back at me.

CORNISH: I know another thing that came up at the trial today was how Slager has used force in other incidents. What more did we learn?

OLGIN: Yeah. So the defense went through each of his use-of-force incidents one by one. There were 18 over the about five years that he was at the North Charleston Police Department. But I want to emphasize that in these use-of-force incidents, his first reaction is to go to his Taser to get the suspect or whoever he is trying to apprehend to comply - doesn't even always use the Taser. But he will sometimes show it - or that was in the record. And, you know, the first - like I said, the first instinct is to pull the Taser, not the gun.

CORNISH: Now, what's left in this case?

OLGIN: So the defense rested late today. We're expecting closing arguments pretty soon. And then it will go to the jury. And the jury has to decide whether this rises to the level of murder. If it does, Slager faces a prison sentence of 30 years to life. Now, one of the most compelling parts of today's testimony was in the end of Slager's questioning, when he was asked if he would do anything differently. And he expressed a little regret. He said if he knew then what he knows now, he would have stayed in the car and called for backup.

CORNISH: Alexandra Olgin is a reporter with South Carolina Public Radio. She spoke to us from the courthouse in Charleston. Thank you.

OLGIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.