South Carolina Police Officer Indicted for Murder for Walter Scott Shooting
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UPDATED: Jun 8, 2015
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The North Charleston, South Carolina police officer who fatally shot Walter Scott during a traffic stop has been indicted for murder by a grand jury. Former officer Michael Slager was captured on video shooting White in the back while he ran away from the scene of a traffic stop, an act which contributed to the nation-wide outrage against police violence against minorities.
Police Shooting Caught on Homemade Video
On April 4th of this year, Slager pulled Scott over in a routine traffic stop for a defective brake light that was in violation of the law. Dash cam footage from Slager’s cruiser shows the two speaking before Scott gets out of his car and begins running from the scene. Video recorded on a bystander’s cell phone shows Scott running across a grassy field and Slager firing eight shots at him, several of which struck the victim in the back. Scott was pronounced dead at the scene, and the bystander’s recording was widely distributed by news agencies and internet outlets.
The video of Michael Scott’s death gained national attention coming in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri last August, which together with the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Freddie Gray in Baltimore have given rise to protest over the number of instances of black men dying at the hands of police officers in the past 12 months. After the video was released, Slager was fired by the North Charleston Police Department and arrested to await formal charges.
Officer Charged and Indicted for Murder in Walter Scott Shooting
Three days after the shooting, on April 7th, Slager was charged with murder by prosecutors for his role in the shooting death of Michael Scott. R. Keith Summey, mayor of North Charleston, announced the decision during a press conference by saying that Slager’s position as a police officer would not protect him, saying, “If you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield … you have to live with that decision … I can tell you that as a result of that video and the bad decision made by our officer, he will be charged with murder.”
This week, two months later, the prosecutor for Charleston County, Scarlett A. Wilson, announced that a grand jury had finalized the charging process by issuing a murder indictment against Slager. South Carolina does not have multiple degrees of murder like several other states, and Wilson issued the charge believing that she will be able to prove “unlawful killing with malice aforethought” as is required by state law. Although the death penalty is a possibility, Wilson said Slager was unlikely to face a capital trial due to a lack of “aggravating circumstances.” Instead, Slager faces 30 years to life in prison without possibility of parole if he is convicted.
Slager’s attorney, Andrew J. Savage, maintained that the indictment is simply a step in the process, and does not mean that his client is guilty. Savage has criticized law enforcement for withholding files necessary for his investigation, and has gone on record to say that the evidence presented at trial will cause jurors to view his client in a different light. Finding jurors who have not seen the video may be difficult, and will likely involve a lengthy vetting process of jury selection before Slager sees the courtroom.
Officer Indictment a Rare Outcome in Police Shooting Cases
According to a database maintained by the Washington Post, more than 400 people have been killed by police officers so far this year. Three of those cases have resulted in criminal charges against the officers responsible for the shooting, making the Slager murder indictment a rare instance. The key element to Slager’s indictment is undoubtedly the video captured by bystander Feidin Santana that propelled the case into the public’s sphere of attention immediately after Scott’s death. Prosecutor Wilson and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division have pointed out that the video is not the sole reason Slager was indicted, noting inconsistencies in his story and physical evidence against him, but many people, including Scott’s relatives disagree.
In April, Scott’s father told the Today show that he believes the police would have “swept [the case] under the rug” had the video not emerged, and expressed his gratitude for Santana’s footage that he believes will help the family achieve some measure of justice. The Slager murder trial is likely going to be delayed for several months while both sides collect evidence and build their case, but the grand jury’s murder indictment comes as a welcome step to activists concerned about potentially excessive and unnecessary force employed by police officers.