November 30, 2016
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The judge in the murder trial of a white former patrolman who fatally shot a black motorist decided Wednesday to let the jury consider a lesser charge of manslaughter, meaning prosecutors won't have to prove the officer acted out of malice when he shot the fleeing man in the back.
Michael Slager is charged in the April 2015 shooting death of Walter Scott, who fled from a traffic stop and resisted arrest. The final moments of their encounter were captured on a bystander's cellphone video that shocked the nation.
While the jury was visiting the scene of the shooting on Wednesday morning, Judge Clifton Newman told attorneys he would grant the prosecution's request to let jurors consider manslaughter as well as murder.
South Carolina law defines murder as the unlawful taking of life with malice. In Slager's case – because the prosecution is alleging no aggravating circumstances that could bring a death sentence – murder carries a penalty of 30 years to life.
The prosecution contends that by shooting Scott repeatedly in the back as the motorist tried to run away, Slager showed evidence of malice.
Slager, a 2001 graduate of Lenape High School in Medford, Burlington County, worked as a waiter in Voorhees prior to leaving South Jersey in 2003 to join the Coast Guard.
Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of another without malice, punishable by two to 30 years in prison.
Defense attorney Andy Savage did not object in court to the addition of the lesser charge.
After hearing from 55 witnesses, the jurors were taken to the crime scene. The vacant lot in North Charleston was the last step before closing arguments Wednesday afternoon in the monthlong trial.
The jury — 11 white people and one black man — have already seen a bystander's cellphone video of the shooting multiple times over the course of the trial.
Newman told the jurors not to take notes or discuss what they see at the scene. Court officials and one representative each from the defense and prosecution went along, but the media was not allowed to attend.
The defense rested its case Tuesday after Slager, 36, testified he felt "total fear" when Scott, 50, got control of his Taser and pointed it at him.
"I knew I was in trouble," Slager said, adding that Scott grabbed the Taser and "was extending his right arm, leaning forward and coming at me."
Slager testified that he had pulled Scott over for a broken taillight and was planning to give him just a warning ticket. But then Scott bolted from the 1990 Mercedes he was buying from a friend.
"In my mind at that time was: People don't run for a broken taillight. There's always another reason," he testified. "I don't know why he ran. It doesn't make any sense to me."
The prosecution has said Scott may have run because he was afraid of having to go to jail for being behind on child support.
Slager described yelling "stop" and "Taser! Taser! Taser!" as he caught up to Scott and said he fired his stun gun three times. He said Scott fell to the ground and still resisted attempts to subdue him.
"I was scared" and in "total fear that Mr. Scott didn't stop" resisting arrest, Slager said.
The video begins about that point, showing Scott breaking away from what Slager said was their confrontation over the Taser.
"At that point, I pulled my firearm and pulled the trigger," he said. "I fired until the threat was stopped, as I was trained to do."
The video shows Slager walking back to the spot where they struggled, picking up the Taser and dropping it near Scott's body.
"I must have dropped it by Mr. Scott's body. I don't remember doing that," he said. And when asked if he was trying to plant evidence, Slager said no.
"A lot of this is fuzzy in my mind," Slager testified.
During cross-examination, prosecutor Bruce DuRant again showed the video and asked Slager if the Taser wasn't on the ground just before the shots were fired.
"At the time on April 4, I would say no. But after watching the video, I would say yes," Slager testified. "At the time of the shooting, I didn't know the Taser was behind me."
Several of Slager's former colleagues at the North Charleston Police Department testified that Slager was an honest man and a good officer.
Joe Stephens, who retired after 24 years called Slager "even-keeled, mild-mannered" while Officer Charles Benton said Slager was known to be truthful.