Former North Charleston police Michael Slager was in a fight with Walter Scott only seconds before Slager shot and killed a fleeing Scott.
As they fought, Scott yelled an obscenity about the police and defied Slager’s command and warning: “Let go of my Taser or I’ll shoot you!”
That is what two defense witnesses testified Tuesday during the second day of Slager’s sentencing trial on a federal charge of violating Scott’s civil rights.
Slager has pleaded guilty to the charge. However, Tuesday’s arguments by the defense witnesses — based on scientific analysis of videos and audio made during the 2015 slaying, Slager’s attorneys say — were designed to show a federal judge that Scott’s behavior was more menacing than prosecutors have acknowledged.
When U.S. Judge David Norton pronounces a sentence for Slager, he will take Scott’s conduct into account, making it important for defense attorneys Andy Savage and Donald McCune to show that Scott’s behavior — resisting an officer — contributed to his death. The defense hopes that it can show Scott’s behavior was threatening, resulting in a shorter prison sentence for Slager.
Slager and Scott were “clearly (in) a fight on the ground,” testified video analysis expert Grant Fredericks of Spokane, Wash., the first defense witness.
Fredericks said he based his opinion on a frame-by-frame analysis of the sometimes blurred pixels in a cell phone video shot by a bystander. A cell phone takes video at the rate of about 30 frames a second, and experts have pored over hundreds of frames to support their claims.
Fredericks’ opinion clashed with testimony Monday by FBI video analysis expert Anthony Imel that the Slager-Scott confrontation in a North Charleston vacant lot only as an “altercation.”
The second defense witness, David Hallimore, an audio expert from Houston, Texas, testified that by filtering out extraneous noises from police radio transmissions, he heard Scott curse the police and Slager yell, “Let go of my Taser or I’ll shoot you.”
That happened just before Scott broke free of Slager’s grasp and began running away, only to be fired upon by Slager, Hallimore said.
Hallimore also testified Scott was defiant almost from the moment that Slager pulled him over for a traffic stop on April 4, 2015.
Slager had to order Scott to “get back in your car,” Hallimore testified.
A minute later, as Slager returned to his police car, the driver’s door of Scott’s car flew open and Scott bolted, according to police dashcam video.
On cross-examination by federal prosecutor Jared Fishman, Fredericks acknowledged Scott was running away from Slager when he was shot. Afterward, the bystander’s video shows Slager picking up his dropped Taser and dropping it next to Scott’s bullet-riddled body, more than 20 yards away, Fredericks conceded.
“Have you ever dropped a weapon next to someone you believe to be dangerous?” Fishman asked Fredericks.
Fredericks said no.
In other testimony Tuesday:
▪ Defense lawyer Savage ridiculed FBI expert video expert Imel’s reliance on the lone bystander video that incriminates Slager. Savage told Imel, who Savage called back to the witness stand Tuesday, that in an NFL football game, referees studying a replay view a play from numerous cameras at different angles.
“In this case, a man’s life is on the line because of one cell phone video. And you know, that doesn’t tell the whole story,” Savage lectured Imel. “What we have is a video from one angle, from one camera.”
▪ Charles Morgan III, a nationally known forensic psychiatrist and a consultant to U.S. military special forces, testified the rational part of the brain shuts down during events that are a threat to life.
“None of us gets smarter under stress,” Morgan testified, adding stress also impairs memory.
After a stress event, “Errors in memory are the norm,” Morgan said, adding, "To have holes in your memory does not tell me a person is lying.”
Defense lawyers argue Slager has told differing versions of his confrontation with Scott because it was a high-stress event.
Prosecutors say Slager was lying and obstructing justice.
The complexity of the issues was illustrated by Judge Norton, who said, at one point Tuesday, “I’ve got seven feet of exhibits."
The sentencing hear could conclude Wednesday, including a decision on Slager’s sentence by Norton.
It is not known at if Slager will testify.
However, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, whose state court trial of Slager on a murder charge ended when jurors were unable to agree on a verdict, could address Norton.
Under a plea bargain, Wilson agreed not to try Slager again for murder if he pleaded guilty to the federal charges. That deal gave Wilson the right to speak at Slager’s federal sentencing hearing.