For Many, S.C. Police Shooting Trial May Finally Offer A Turning Point

Oct 31, 2016
Originally published on November 1, 2016 8:53 am

Jury selection starts Monday in the case of former North Charleston, S.C., officer Michael Slager. The white ex-cop is accused of murder in the shooting death of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, last year.

The killing was captured on video.

It started with a traffic stop in April 2015. Slager stopped Scott for a broken brake light on the Mercedes-Benz he was driving.

Video from Slager's dashcam shows the officer at the driver's window, asking for Scott's driver's license and questioning him about documents for the car. After Slager returns to his patrol car, Scott jumps out of the car and runs. Slager gives chase, and there's an off-camera confrontation.

That's where a bystander video picks up. The bystander recorded the scene unfolding in an empty lot, and it's startling. Scott is running away from the officer when Slager opens fire.

Slager said Scott had his Taser, but the bystander video that surfaced a few days after the shooting appears to contradict this story. Once it was public, the North Charleston Police Department fired the officer, and a grand jury indicted him for murder.

Andy Savage, Slager's defense attorney, plans to argue that Slager acted in accordance with his police training.

"The whole focus of our case really is in a matter of nanoseconds. What was in Slager's mind at the instant that he decided to use lethal force?" Savage tells NPR.

In several other high-profile cases like this — in Baltimore, for instance — prosecutors have not won convictions against police officers.

"We've seen what happened in Baltimore. Nobody killed Freddie Gray. So the folks in Charleston, we want to see him go to jail and send a message to other officers that if you do this, it's a harsh penalty to pay," says the Rev. Thomas Ravenell from Empowerment Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston. "Anything else less than that, I think the people in this city will be very upset."

Standing beneath a Spanish moss-draped oak tree, Ravenell gestures toward the center of a vacant lot that spans a block in a commercial section of North Charleston.

"That's where he was gunned down. Somewhere in here," he says. After the shooting, Ravenell helped start the North Charleston Civil Reform Coalition to push for a citizen review board and other police reforms.

"There's always been that great dislike between the police department here and the black community," he says.

Suburban North Charleston is an industrial and commercial center. African-Americans make up nearly half the population, yet the police force is about 75 percent white.

The city of North Charleston agreed to pay Scott's family $6.5 million in an out-of-court civil settlement. Now, Ravenell says, people are looking for criminal justice in the Slager murder trial.

A validated voice

The site of the shooting has become a sort of sacred space for Muhiyidin d'Baha, an organizer with the Charleston chapter of Black Lives Matter. He calls it Walter Scott's memorial garden.

"We planted a bunch of seeds here in the area where he was murdered," he says.

But it's hard to see anything budding in the weedy field. This is private property, and markers left in tribute have been removed. A few teddy bears remain in a chain-link fence surrounding the lot, but they're obscured by vines and a pile of tree limbs cleaned up after Hurricane Matthew.

D'Baha says Slager's trial has the potential to be a turning point. He hopes the video can be the difference, because he says it changes the dynamic of pitting a black man's word against a white officer.

"This case can get us over that hump," he says. "In the courts, we can finally have our voice be validated. So we can have a little bit of faith within using the court system to get justice and to equal things out."

In addition to the state murder count, Slager also faces federal criminal charges of depriving Scott of his rights under color of law.

The fact that Slager faces charges at all is significant, says reporter Barney Blakeney, who writes for the Charleston Chronicle, the local black newspaper.

"In my 40-year police reporting career, this is first time any police officer has been brought to task for an unarmed shooting," he says.

The challenge for Slager's defense will be how to prevent the case from turning into an indictment of policing in America. Savage says he plans to address it with the jury from the get go.

"That this is the scourge of the country. This is something that should be talked about, this is something that should be argued at the kitchen table and at public forums. But this is not the place to do it during the trial of Michael Slager," he says.

Savage won't say at this point whether Slager will testify in his own defense.

If convicted, he faces up to life in prison.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

One of the most shocking cases of a police shooting last year was that of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C. - shocking because the actual shooting played out in real time on video. And today, jury selection begins in the trial of the then-police officer who did the shooting. His name is Michael Slager. The white ex-cop is accused of murder in the shooting death of this unarmed black man. We should say that you will be hearing audio that some listeners may find disturbing. NPR's Debbie Elliott will be following the case, and she joins us now from Charleston. Good morning.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And this started, Debbie, with a traffic stop in April of 2015. Then-North Charleston patrolman Michael Slager stopped Walter Scott for a broken brake light on the Mercedes Benz that he was driving. What happened?

ELLIOTT: Well, video from Slager's dash cam shows the officer at the driver's window. He's asking for the driver's license and questioning Walter Scott about documents for the car, insurance and the like. After Slager returns to his patrol car to check the ID, Scott jumps out of the car and just start running away. Slager gives chase. There's an off-camera confrontation. And that's when this bystander video picks up. He records the scene unfolding in this empty lot. And it's really startling. Scott is running away from the officer when Slager opens fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOTS)

MONTAGNE: Those are pretty dramatic sounds, and the image was too. And that's why it drew the national spotlight. I mean, you've got a white police officer running after and gunning down a middle-aged black man as he is fleeing. How did Slager defend his actions?

ELLIOTT: You know, he said that Walter Scott had gotten his Taser. You can hear him on the police radio immediately after the shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL SLAGER: 223 to dispatch - shots fired. Subject is down. He grabbed my Taser.

ELLIOTT: He's saying, shots fired, subject down. He grabbed my Taser. But then the bystander video surfaced a few days after the shooting and appeared to contradict Slager's story. Once that was public, the North Charleston Police Department fired Slager. And a grand jury indicted him for murder. Andy Savage is going to be Slager's defense attorney during this trial. He says he plans to argue that Slager was acting in accordance with his police training.

ANDY SAVAGE: The whole focus of our case really is in a matter of nanoseconds. What was in Michael Slager's mind at the instant that he decided to use lethal force?

MONTAGNE: And Debbie, in several other high-profile cases like this - in Baltimore, for instance - prosecutors have not won convictions against police officers. With the Slager trial set to start, what's the expectation from North Charleston?

ELLIOTT: Well, to find out what people are looking for from the trial, I went to the community where it happened and talked with people.

THOMAS RAVENELL: This is the exact area. Right in here is where Walter Scott was shot.

ELLIOTT: Reverend Thomas Ravenell from empowerment Missionary Baptist Church is standing beneath a Spanish-moss-draped oak tree in a vacant lot that spans a block in a commercial section of North Charleston.

RAVENELL: And that's where he was gunned down - somewhere in here.

ELLIOTT: After the shooting, Ravenell helped start a local coalition to push for a citizen review board and other police reforms.

RAVENELL: There's always been that great dislike between the police department here and the black community.

ELLIOTT: Suburban North Charleston is an industrial and commercial center. African-Americans make up nearly half the population, yet the police force is about 75 percent white. The city of North Charleston agreed to pay Walter Scott's family $6.5 million in an out-of-court civil settlement. Now, Ravenell says, people are looking for criminal justice in the Slager murder trial.

RAVENELL: We've seen what happened in Baltimore. Some - nobody killed Freddie Grey. So the folks in Charleston, we want to see him go to jail and send a message to other officers that if you do this, there's a harsh penalty to pay. Anything else less than that, I think the people in the city will be very upset.

ELLIOTT: The site of this shooting has become a sort of sacred space for Muhiyidin d'Baha, an organizer with the Charleston chapter of Black Lives Matter. He calls it Walter Scott's memorial garden.

MUHIYIDIN D'BAHA: We planted a bunch of seeds here in the area where he was murdered.

ELLIOTT: But it's hard to see anything budding in the weedy field. This is private property, and markers left in tribute have been removed. A few teddy bears remain in a chain link fence surrounding the lot, but they're obscured by vines and a pile of tree limbs cleaned up after Hurricane Matthew. D'Baha says Michael Slager's trial has the potential to be a turning point. He hopes the video can be the difference because, he says, it changes the dynamic of pitting a black man's word against a white officer.

D'BAHA: This case can get us over that hump in the courts. We can finally have our voice be validated so we can have a little bit of faith within using the court system to get justice and to equal things out.

ELLIOTT: In addition to the state murder count, Slager also faces federal criminal charges of depriving Walter Scott of his rights under color of law. The fact that Michael Slager faces charges at all is significant, says reporter Barney Blakeney, who writes for The Charleston Chronicle, the city's African-American weekly newspaper.

BARNEY BLAKENEY: In my 40-year police reporting career, this is the first time any police officer has been brought to task for an unarmed shooting.

MONTAGNE: So Debbie Elliott, it sounds like some high expectations there in North Charleston for this trial.

ELLIOTT: Certainly, that is going to be the challenge for Michael Slager's defense - how to prevent this case from turning into an indictment of policing in America because everyone is watching. Andy Savage says he plans to address that with the jury from the get-go.

SAVAGE: This is a scourge of the country. This is something that should be talked about. This is something that should be argued at the kitchen table and at the public forums. But this is not the place to do it, during the trial of Michael Slager. What did Michael Slager do? And should he be held criminally responsible?

ELLIOTT: Now, Renee, Savage won't say at this point whether Slager will be testifying in his own defense. If he's convicted, he faces up to life in prison.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott speaking to us from Charleston, S.C. Thanks very much.

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