Was former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager an executioner when he fatally shot unarmed Walter Scott in the back after a foot chase?
Or was Slager an overworked, diligent cop, working solo in a stressful high-crime area who fired at Scott only after a furious fight over Slager’s Taser?
Those two opposing pictures emerged Monday in opening statements to the federal judge who will decide how much time in prison, if any, Slager will serve for killing Scott as he was running away in April 2015.
Slager faces a maximum sentence of life in prison on a federal charge of violating Scott’s civil rights. The prosecution is seeking life because, prosecutors said in recent court filings, Slager repeatedly has lied about the incident and obstructed justice by rearranging the crime scene.
Defense attorney Andrew Savage vehemently disagreed with that version of events Monday.
“The Taser was grabbed and taken away from him (Slager) by Mr. Scott,” Savage told U.S. District Court Judge David Horton. “He tried to get away from the Taser, and Scott stood up and came at him. There is video of him doing exactly that.”
But assistant U.S. attorney Jared Fishman told the judge that Slager’s shooting of Scott was equivalent to “second-degree murder” — “deliberate, calculated, and it was not driven by emotion.”
Slager, 36, wore a gray-and-white striped jail jump suit as he sat at the defense table in the 80-seat courtroom in downtown Charleston’s federal courthouse.
The sentencing hearing is expected to last at least two days.
In effect, it is a mini-trial allowing both sides to present evidence and witnesses about Slager.
Last May, the former officer pleaded guilty to violating Scott’s civil rights. In return, state murder charges against the ex-policeman were dropped.
The case has racial overtones — Scott was African-American and Slager is white. It attracted worldwide attention after a cellphone video of the shooting, made public days after the tragedy, went viral on the Internet.
‘Going to police ... my last option’
That video was played twice Monday as the trial got underway.
In court filings last month, federal prosecutors said, “But for the existence of bystander cellphone video, it is likely that the defendant would have succeeded in covering up his criminal conduct that resulted in the death of Walter Scott.”
Prosecutor Fishman asked Feidin Santana, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, how he came to shoot the video.
Santana, 26, testified he was walking to the barbershop where he worked when he shot the video of Slager chasing Scott, getting him on the ground and then shooting at Scott as he fled.
After the shooting, Santana testified, he was afraid to take the video to the North Charleston police.
“I didn’t feel safe,” Santana said. “Going to police, for me, was going to be my last option.”
Instead, Santana sent copies of the video to his girlfriend in the Dominican Republic and contacted Scott’s family to ensure they received a copy.
“I didn’t want to give it into the wrong hands,” Santana testified. “I was very concerned with my safety.
Under cross-examination, Savage attacked Santana’s reliability, forcing him to acknowledge he had spent years in the United States but had not applied for citizenship, had not paid S.C. taxes and made money off the video.
“Did you not sell that video to an agent in Australia?” Savage asked Santana.
Santana said his attorney handled that transaction but added he did get some money from the video. He didn’t say how much.
‘Deprived of justice’ by government’s ‘sloppiness’
In his opening statement, Savage spun Slager’s life story as a tale of a good, well-meaning person caught up in an unintentional law enforcement nightmare.
Even in high school, Slager wanted to help others. Later, he spent six years in the Coast Guard before leaving “with an honorable discharge” to join the North Charleston Police Department.
There, Slager was a “beat” cop, one of the “thin blue line” who risked his life on patrol, Savage said.
“He got there (North Charleston) when the homicide rate was one of the highest in the nation,” Savage told Norton, adding officers were under orders to stop at least eight vehicles a day. The idea was that officers could spot drugs or guns in cars and make arrests that way.
Slager often led the department in stops and, over time, crime dropped in North Charleston, Savage contended. However, no one ever made a race-based complaint against Slager, Savage added.
The day of the shooting, other officers assigned to the region were absent or unavailable to help Slager, Savage said. “The manpower available to back up officer Slager, should he need support, was zero.”
Savage also contended prosecutors failed to look into evidence that could have cleared Slager. For instance, they did not investigate burn marks on Slager’s uniform that would prove Scott may have used the Taser on Slager and failed to follow up in timely fashion on DNA testing that would show Scott held the Taser, Savage said.
“We shouldn’t be deprived of justice because of the sloppiness of the government’s investigation,” Savage said.
Scott was ‘moving toward him,’ Slager told SLED
However, Lt. Charles Ghent of the State Law Enforcement Division told the court that, in an initial interview three days after the shooting, Slager did not claim Scott had punched him, kicked him or was on top of him as they tussled on the ground.
In that April 7, 2015, interview — just hours before the release of the video shot by Santana — Slager said he shot Scott in self-defense, Ghent said.
“He (Slager) was clear he fired his weapon as Mr. Scott was moving toward him?” prosecutor Fishman asked.
“Yes,” replied Ghent, adding Slager did not say, at the time, that Scott was running away from him.
The only other witness to testify Monday was Anthony Imel, a FBI forensic expert on videos and sounds.
Imel, who has testified in major trials including the Boston Marathon bomber case, told the court he had examined Santana’s video, frame by frame, to calculate the widening distances between Slager and Scott as the policeman fired eight shots, five of which struck Scott in his back side.
The first shot was fired when Scott was about 16 to 18 feet away from Slager. By the eighth shot, Scott was more than 40 feet away, according to prosecution documents filed last month.
In 2015, Scott's family received a $6.5 million settlement from the City of North Charleston in connection with his slaying.
What happened, why?
April 4, 2015: North Charleston police office Michael Slager shoots and kills an unarmed Water Scott after a traffic stop.
June 2015: Charleston grand jury indicts Slager on murder charges.
May 2016: Federal grand jury indicts Slager on charges of violating Scott’s civil rights.
December 2016: State murder trial ends when a jury is unable to agree on a verdict.
May 2017: Slager pleads guilty to federal civil-rights charges, and the murder charges are dropped.