CHARLESTON, S.C. — The criminal justice system “rides on the back of law enforcement,” who must be held responsible when they “mess up,” a prosecutor said Wednesday during closing arguments in the trial of a white former North Charleston officer charged with shooting a black motorist as he ran away.
“If we don’t hold people accountable when they mess up, it all falls apart,” Solicitor Scarlett Wilson told jurors hours before they began deliberating.
But the defense attorney for the officer, Michael Slager — who’s charged with shooting Walter Scott — argued that the media created a “false narrative” of a white officer in North Charleston who stopped a black motorist for a brake light and just shot him when he ran away.
The shooting was captured on a cell phone video that doesn’t tell the whole story of an officer trying to do his job, defense attorney Andy Savage argued.
“That is the narrative those people sitting in the back two rows told you, told the public,” Savage said, referring to the journalists sitting in the courtroom.
Savage and Wilson wrapped up closing arguments Wednesday in the five-week murder trial of Slager, who prosecutors said fired at the unarmed Scott eight times on April 4, 2015.
Three of those shots struck Scott in the back. Slager has pleaded not-guilty.
Prosecutors have argued that Scott, a father of four, ran after Slager stopped him because he knew the officer would have discovered his warrant for unpaid child support. Scott’s actions were foolish but he didn’t deserve to die, Wilson has argued.
An emotional Slager took the stand on Tuesday and testified that his mind was like “spaghetti” during the altercation that ended with him shooting Scott. Slager said they scuffled before the shooting. But Scott was stronger and wrestled away his Taser, briefly pointing it him before running.
Slager testified that even at 18 feet away, Scott still posed a threat to him and could have turned around and charged him.
For Slager to be found guilty, the state must demonstrate “malice and aforethought” in Slager’s actions – even if it was just for a second.
There are no degrees to the murder charge in South Carolina. If convicted, Slager faces 30 years to life in prison.
Judge Clifton Newman allowed the jury to consider the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter.
Newman also explained the burden needed to prove self defense, which Slager is claiming.
No evidence of a struggle
In her closing argument, Wilson pointed to the condition of Slager’s uniform shown on the widely-seen cell-phone video of the shooting, and later noted that the officer’s earpiece was still attached as Scott’s body laid on the ground.
“I’m not saying there wasn’t a struggle. Walter Scott did not want to tased; It did not feel good,” Wilson said. “But there’s no evidence he was coming after that man, no evidence of that.”
Wilson, referring to Slager’s earpiece, added: “Now if he’s in a choke hold, a head lock,a violent struggle, what’s the first thing to go?”
She said the video showed Slager’s badge, radio and nameplate were still attached. Scott’s driver license was still tucked in Slager’s belt, she said.
“That is not the sign of a violent, throw down, life-threatening fight,” Wilson argued.
She described a cut visible on Slager’s hand as “a glorified paper cut” that undoubtedly came from the Taser.
Hours later, at the police department, there were no scratches or redness or puffiness in the officer’s face, Wilson said.
Wilson said Slager’s DNA wasn’t found under Scott’s long fingernails; Scott was trying to get away from Slager because he didn’t want to go to jail, she said..
“He picked a sorry way to do it. He should be sitting there right now on trial for resisting arrest,” Wilson said.
‘No excuse for that’
Wilson said Slager’s testimony describing Scott as “wiggling” underneath him also indicates there wasn’t a violent struggle.
“And with 50,000 volts I bet he was wiggling,” she said.
She said the only evidence that Scott had Slager’s Taser came from Slager.
Wilson had previously played the cell phone video that showed Scott running away with the Taser rolling on the ground behind Slager. Attorneys for Scott’s family have also argued that the video showed Slager trying to plant evidence at the scene, moving a Taser closer to Scott’s body.
Wilson, in her closing, said Slager never rolled Scott’s body over to find the Taser because he knew where to find it.
She argued that Slager “knows that Taser is a problem for him.” Wilson said the officer’s “instincts” told him to get the Taser and drop it next to Scott’s body.
“There is no good explanation for that. There is no excuse for that,” Wilson said.
Media created a ‘false narrative’
On Tuesday, Slager testified that he knew he was “in trouble” after Scott wrestled his Taser away and briefly pointed it at him.
“I was in total fear that Mr. Scott didn’t stop, continued to come towards me,” Slager said on the stand.
Savage, in his closing, pointed to the back of the courtroom and said “my friends in the media” created that “false narrative.”
The media zeroed in on brief 16-second video of the shooting because there was violence and it was racially-inflammatory, Savage said.
“It’s the concept of what was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Staten Island, New York,” he said referring to the deaths of Alton Sterling,
Philando Castile and Eric Garner, black men who died at the hands of police officers.
But Savage argued that the “shooting didn’t happen in a vacuum.” He said Scott wasn’t shot because he had a broken tail light.
“Mr. Scott was shot because of what he did,” Savage told the jury.
Savage said Slager, who was highly regarded by supervisors and didn’t have any citizens complaints against him, pulled over Scott in a routine stop.
But what happened next took seconds, Savage said. “It’s taken 18 months for the state to decide what happened in seconds.”
Defense: Scott’s conduct is to blame
When Scott ran away, it raised suspicions to Slager, who got out of his car, locked the door and ran after him, Savage said.
“So, this is not about a brake light,” Savage said. “It’s about the felonious conduct exercised by Mr. Scott.”
Savage repeated Slager’s commands to Scott: “Stop, Taser, Taser, Taser,” before discharging it.
In the audio of the encounter, Slager is heard telling Scott to “get on the ground” because Scott was resisting, Savage said.
He said his client didn’t have “malice in his heart” and was doing his job, Savage said. He said Slager couldn’t figure out why the motorist with “unusual strength…. was fighting him,” Savage said.
Savage said Slager is getting beaten up during a 24-second-gap in the audio during which he called for help. Officers knew Slager was in distress, Savage said.
Savage said Scott grabbed Slager during the struggle, noting that Slager was bleeding hours later.
Savage took a piece of paper and dropped it on the floor, asserting that it took longer for the paper to sail to ground for the first shot to be fired. That amounted to two-thirds of a second, Savage said.
Savage told the jury that Scott was “out of control,” and asked the jury to imagine if he didn’t stop Scott and Scott later committed a crime.
Savage said “because of the video he has become a poster boy” for the events that took place in 2014 and 2015.
“Don’t let that happen,” Savage said.
‘We will receive justice for my brother’
In a news conference during deliberations, Scott family attorney Chris Stewart said: “It’s up to the jury and God right now.”
Scott’s brother, Anthony Scott, continued to express confidence the family will get what it feels is justice.
“It’s been a long, hard five weeks, and we just continuously believe in God and ask for the continuous prayer of the city, the state and the country,” Anthony Scott said. “And we do believe that we will get the guilty verdict and that we will receive justice for my brother.”