A jury being chosen this week in Charleston will have to decide whether a white former police officer is guilty of murder in the shooting of an unarmed black motorist that shocked the nation after a bystander released cellphone video of the confrontation.
Michael Slager’s attorney contends there was more to the incident than what appeared on the widely seen video clip showing Walter Scott’s shooting, including a fight between the pair and a tussle over the officer’s Taser.
Coincidentally, the same week that a panel is being seated in the Slager case, jury selection begins for the trial of Ray Tensing, a former University of Cincinnati police officer who – like Slager – stands accused of murder in the shooting death of an unarmed black man. Sam DuBose was killed in July 2015, and Tensing faces murder and voluntary manslaughter charges in the incident, in which he pulled DuBose over for a missing front license plate that ended in the fatal shooting.
The shootings are among a series nationwide that have sparked debates over race and policing in cities from New York and Chicago to Ferguson, Missouri; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Chris Stewart, an attorney for the Scott family, sees the Slager case as a blueprint for others involving police and minorities.
“When an officer is prosecuted, will you get justice?” he asks. “The verdict is huge. It needs to serve as a lesson to officers that if you break the law, you don’t just get away.”
Slager, who turns 35 in November, faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted in the shooting that occurred after he pulled Scott over for a broken taillight. Family members have said Scott may have run because he was $18,000 behind on child support and worried he might have to go back to jail.
Attorney Andy Savage, who represents Slager, said the brief video clip that’s been circulated widely on the internet does not show the entire incident. He said the footage also shows the two men tussling on the ground, with Scott on top of the officer as they wrestle, and Slager warning Scott that he will shoot.
When the cellphone video surfaced two days after the incident, Slager was fired, arrested and charged with murder. He spent eight months in jail before Judge Clifton Newman, who is black, issued an order last January releasing him on a half-million dollars bond. Slager is under house arrest at an undisclosed location in South Carolina.
About 600 summonses were sent to potential jurors for the trial at the courthouse in Charleston’s historic district. They received questionnaires asking their thoughts on race relations and police conduct. Almost 200 are expected to report Monday after others were excused for various reasons or could not be located.
Savage has filed a motion seeking a change of venue, arguing a researcher his firm hired found that 85 percent of the people polled in Charleston County have seen the shooting video. Savage said the complete video showing the fight has seldom been seen. Newman has not taken up the motion.
Slager also faces a trial in federal court next year on three counts, including depriving Scott of his civil rights. Conviction on all three could bring a life sentence plus 30 years and a $750,000 fine.
Last year the city of North Charleston reached a $6.5 million civil settlement with Scott’s family. In the wake of the shooting, the city also asked that the U.S. Justice Department conduct a review of its police department policies with an eye toward how the department can improve its relationship with residents.
North Charleston becomes the 11th police department in the nation to request such a review since the Justice Department started its Community Oriented Policing Services program, known as COPS, about five years ago. Other cities that requested reviews include Baltimore, Philadelphia and Las Vegas.