On Monday afternoon, South Carolina Judge Clifton B. Newman declared a mistrial in the murder trial of former cop Michael Slager because jurors were unable to reach a verdict. The news sent shock waves throughout the community, leaving Walter Scott’s family particularly stunned and shaken. Before the trial began, nearly every legal expert and pundit worth their pay check believed it was a slam dunk case for the prosecution. So what happened? Based on a jury note that was sent to the judge late Friday afternoon, the jury was within one vote of a guilty verdict. There appeared to be one holdout. The prosecution has vowed to re-try this case. Based on the following facts, it is quite shocking they didn’t get a conviction this time around.
#1 —- One juror appeared to be the hold out.
The craziest part of this trial was not the testimony. Many of those details had already been revealed last year. The shocking turn of events came in the last few days of jury deliberations when a unidentified juror sent the judge a letter telling him that he could could not “in good conscience consider a guilty verdict. ”A second note from jurors seemed to indicate that there was only one hold out juror, while the other 11 jurors still thought they could reach a unanimous verdict in the case.
However, on Monday morning, another turn of events when the judge received a note saying that “[t]he majority of the jurors are still undecided and we would like help with the following questions.” It is not clear what happened over the weekend to flip some of the jurors, but it appears this one juror had some influence on the others.
From the tone of the juror’s initial note to the judge, it appears he had somehow made up his mind from the start, and couldn’t convict a cop. He may have had some preconceived notion about the case. Was it Officer Slager in particular, or all cops in general? That’s not clear. But, what is clear is if the prosecution had done a more thorough job weeding out this potential liability during jury selection, they may have won their case. As of Friday, it appeared that the eleven other jurors wanted to convict at least on the lesser charge. Thus, if this case is retried, there is good reason to believe that prosecutors will prevail a second time around.
#2 —- The video is damning.
What makes this trial especially unique from other officer-involved shooting cases is that there is an actual video showing the hectic moments leading up to Walter Scott’s death. It is not often that jurors are presented with such clear evidence. And what is even more apparent from the recording is that Scott was running away from the officer when he was shot multiple times.
Slager’s defense tried to portray Scott as dangerous, describing a physical altercation between the two men. But in order for Slager to claim that he acted in self-defense, he’d have to show that he was in imminent danger. Not only was Scott nowhere near Slager when the first shot was fired, he was running away with his back to the officer. On top of that, the video didn’t show Scott running towards anyone else, so it’s not even like Slager could say he was protecting another individual.
#3 —- Scott was approximately 15 to 20 feet away and fleeing when he was shot in the back.
As the video shows, when Officer Slager opened fire, he was approximately 15 to 20 feet away from Scott, who was fleeing. On the stand, State Law Enforcement Division Special Agent Almon Brown testified that there were no signs of stippling found on Scott, the pattern caused by hot gunpowder spewed from a firearm at close range. In further testimony, Dr. Lee Tormos, a pathologist said an autopsy showed that all of the bullets, including the fatal one hit Scott from behind him.
# 4 —- Scott had NO weapon on him when he was shot (not even the Taser)
Walter Scott, who was 50, was not armed with a gun or knife when he was shot and killed. Slager’s defense claimed that the officer was in danger describing a physical altercation between Slager and Scott. Defense attorneys said that Scott took Slager’s Taser during the scuffle. The officer reportedly told 911 dispatch “Shots fired and the subject is down, he took my Taser.” However, cell phone video showed that after the altercation and before the shooting, the taser rolled on the ground behind Slager.
“So would you agree that at this time he is not armed and he’s running away from you?” the prosecutor asked Slager when he was on the stand during the trial.
“Like I said at the time on April 4th, I would say no, but after watching the video, yes,” Slager responded. In other words, Slager himself agreed that Scott was not armed when he was running away from him that day. “At the time of the shooting, I didn’t know the Taser was behind me,” Slager claimed.
In addition, there were suggestions that Slager planted evidence. In the video, you can see Slager picking up the Taser and placing it near Scott immediately following the shooting. During his testimony, Slager said “I must have dropped it by Mr. Scott’s body. I don’t remember doing that.” When asked specifically if he attempted to plant evidence, the former officer respond “no.”Whether he planted it or not, his actions certainly raise suspicions.
In addition, according to The Washington Post, city officials said Scott was clearly too far away away to use a Taser even if he did have it. If you examine the video for yourself, it would be hard to imagine that Slager was genuinely fearful that a taser could land on him and shock him from that distance.
#5 —_ Jurors could have convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter
Okay, so even if you get through all of this evidence, you might still argue that the murder charge isn’t justified, because maybe you believe that Officer Slager didn’t act with malice aforethought which is a necessarily component for the crime. Even if that’s the case, the judge allowed the jury to also consider another charge,voluntary manslaughter, which carries a sentence of 2 to 30 years. This charge was even easier for prosecutors to prove. According to the jury instructions:
TO PROVE VOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER, THE STATE MUST PROVE BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT THAT THE DEFENDANT TOOK THE LIFE OF ANOTHER IN THE SUDDEN HEAT OF PASSION BASED ON SUFFICIENT LEGAL PROVOCATION. BOTH HEAT OF PASSION AND SUFFICIENT LEGAL PROVOCATION MUST BE PRESENT AT THE TIME OF THE KILLING TO CONSTITUTE VOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER.
Slager said he was acting in self-defense, claiming that he felt afraid during the encounter. But, as the jurors learned through the jury instructions, they could only buy Slager’s defense if they believed “he was in imminent danger and a reasonably prudent person of ordinary firmness and courage would have had the same belief.”
By examining this evidence, it is hard to believe that Officer Slager felt like he was in “imminent danger” from a man who had his back towards him, was 18 feet away, and was maybe armed with a taser (but actually was not). Even if Slager did legitimately believe that Scott had his taser, there is little doubt Scott could have done much to endanger Slager’s life from such a far distance.
Ronn Blitzer and Chris White contributed to this report.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.