Walter Scott

Mistrial Before Michael Slager's Guilty Plea Epitomized Lenience for Cops Who Kill

How could jurors think that shooting a fleeing, unarmed man in the back was not a crime?



The bystander video that led to homicide charges against former North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager clearly showed that his shooting of Walter Scott, a motorist he stopped because of a defective brake light on April 4, 2015, was not justified. Yesterday Slager admitted as much in federal court, saying in his plea agreement that he "used deadly force even though it was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances." Yet five months before Slager pleaded guilty to depriving Scott of his civil rights under color of law, a state jury deadlocked on the question of whether the shooting was a crime—a mistrial that vividly illustrates the special treatment that cops enjoy when they kill people.

After Slager pulled him over, Scott got out of his car and fled, apparently because of an outstanding warrant for failure to pay child support. Slager ran after him and shot him with a Taser, which knocked him down. Scott got back up and during the ensuing scuffle, Slager later claimed, grabbed the Taser. But by the time Slager drew his pistol and fired eight rounds, the stun gun had fallen to the ground, and Scott was running away from Slager. He was about 18 feet away, his back to Slager, when the deadly fusillade cut him down. This was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an act of self-defense.

Watching the video during his trial, Slager conceded that Scott was not holding the Taser and that he was not close enough to pose any sort of threat with his bare hands. But Slager said he did not realize that at the time. All he knew was that he was "scared" because he had been unable to subdue Scott, who "was a lot stronger than me."

According to Slager's testimony, he decided to use deadly force before the threat from Scott receded. "That decision was made when Mr. Scott was 27 inches away, toe to toe," he said. "At that point, I made the decision to use lethal force. He was still dangerous….I was in total fear that Mr. Scott didn't stop, continued to come towards me. I pulled my firearm, and I pulled the trigger….I fired until the threat was stopped like I'm trained to do." Slager could not explain why the video shows him picking up the Taser from the ground and dropping it next to Scott's body before retrieving it a few seconds later, which certainly looks like an aborted attempt to make the threat Slager perceived seem more credible.

The jury considered two charges against Slager: murder, which South Carolina defines as "the killing of any person with malice aforethought, either express or implied," and manslaughter, which is "the unlawful killing of another without malice, express or implied." The most charitable interpretation of Slager's account is that he overreacted in the heat of the moment, perceiving a threat that did not exist. South Carolina law allows someone to use deadly force when he faces an "imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury" or when he believes that to be the case, but only if "a reasonably prudent person of ordinary firmness and courage would have had the same belief."

It seems safe to say that a reasonably prudent person of ordinary firmness and courage would not think he was acting in self-defense by shooting a fleeing man in the back from a distance of six yards. That means Slager was guilty, at the very least, of manslaughter, which is punishable by two to 30 years in prison. But interviews with jurors after the trial indicate that they resisted the manslaughter charge for legally specious reasons.

The jury foreman, Dorsey Montgomery, told NBC News he was initially inclined to convict Slager of murder but decided after reviewing the evidence that manslaughter was the more appropriate charge. One of the 12 jurors was firmly opposed to both charges, Montgomery said, while five others were undecided. "Part of the problem," another, unnamed juror told the Charleston Post and Courier, "was the fact that he may not be completely innocent, but the charges we were given were possibly a little too harsh."

The latter juror thought the undecided members of the panel (who evidently included him) would have been more inclined to convict Slager if given the option of involuntary manslaughter. But that charge clearly did not apply in this case, since involuntary manslaughter, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison with no minimum, involves killing someone through criminal negligence, meaning the defendant acted with "reckless disregard of the safety of others." It is obvious, as even Slager admitted during his trial, that he deliberately shot Scott. The question was whether he was justified in doing so and, if not, whether he acted out of malice.

It seems clear that half of the jurors bent over backward to avoid convicting Slager of manslaughter, to the point that they ignored the law. It also seems clear that they never would have cut so much slack for an ordinary defendant, one who was not wearing a uniform and badge when he commited his crime:

In the end, the juror said his fellow panel members had a "very hard time" faulting the policeman for a decision he made as a result of his job. They once sent a note to the judge asking whether the self-defense requirements are any different for law officers than for citizens.

"Society as a whole has not made it easy to be a policeman," the juror said. "The cop on the street is always being second-guessed, always going to have 5 million eyes on him. Everybody is going to Monday morning quarterback it. But he's out there, and he's got to make a decision within a second or two."

The jurors who resisted a guilty verdict literally wanted to know whether police officers are bound by the same law as the rest of us. They thought that maybe cops, in light of the risks and criticism they face, should get away with killing people from time to time even when they don't reasonably believe the use of deadly force is necessary. This alarming double standard goes a long way toward explaining why it's so difficult to hold cops accountable when they victimize the citizens they are supposed to protect.