by Paul Bowers
A Charleston County grand jury indicted former North Charleston Police Department Officer Michael Thomas Slager Monday morning on a charge of murder in the case of the death of Walter Lamer Scott.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett A. Wilson, who is prosecuting the case against Slager, says murder was the only charge presented in the closed-door grand jury meeting. Under South Carolina law, murder is defined as "the killing of any person with malice aforethought, either express or implied." Wilson said in a press conference that there is "no time limit" on malice aforethought. "It can be seconds before," Wilson said. "As long as malice exists in the heart and mind at the time before and during the killing, the state has proven malice aforethought."
Unlike other states, South Carolina law does not specify different degrees of murder. If found guilty, Slager could face a prison sentence of 30 years to life without parole. While the law allows for the death penalty in murder cases, Wilson has previously said, based on the evidence she had seen, that the death penalty provision would not apply due to the lack of "aggravating circumstances."
Asked whether she had concerns about assembling a jury in the Charleston area, Wilson said, "Certainly this case has gotten a lot of publicity, but the issue is not whether or not someone has heard about this case. The issue is whether or not they can put everything they've heard aside and make a decision based on the facts and the evidence that are presented in court. And usually people want to do that, and you'd be surprised how many people don't have a problem coming forward and telling us, 'Look, I can't be fair. I don't want to sit on this case.' So I feel sure the people of Charleston County can decide it."
Wilson said she received a case file this morning from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), which has been investigating the April 4 shooting. In an eyewitness video, Slager can be seen drawing his handgun and firing eight rounds in Scott's direction as Scott ran away following a traffic stop.
Pastor Thomas Dixon and Elder James Johnson, two activists who have been critical of Wilson's record of prosecuting officer-involved shootings, attended Wilson's press conference. Johnson in particular questioned Wilson about her record, saying she had never indicted an officer in the killing of a black man.
"While I have not prosecuted an officer for murder under these types of circumstances, we certainly have prosecuted officers and approved warrants or at least consulted on warrants where we thought officers should be charged," Wilson replied. "And I'm confident again, based on the evidence that has been brought before us, that we've made the right decisions in other cases regarding whether or not to move forward."
S.C. Chief Justice Jean Toal appointed Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman to preside over State v. Slager in mid-April. Toal declined at the time to comment on why she had chosen Newman, who is based in Kingstree, to oversee the case. Newman will set the dates for any hearings and trial dates in the case.