Grace Beahm/Post and Courier
Michael Slager claims that Walter Scott pointed a Taser at the officer before stepping toward him
Throughout the trial of Michael Slager, defense attorneys have asked the jury to consider the death of Walter Scott and the events that led to his shooting from the perspective of the former North Charleston officer. On Tuesday, after hearing from 17 witnesses for the defense, jurors were given the clearest image of what went through Slager’s mind on April 4, 2015, as he took the stand.
Since opening arguments, lead defense attorney Andy Savage has drawn comparisons between Slager and accused Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof in an apparent effort to highlight the severity of the murder charge leveled against Slager. As Slager took the stand Tuesday, Roof sat in a courthouse just across the street, opting to represent himself in the selection of the jury in the federal capital case. In his final question for his client, Savage would ask Slager to recount his emotional state in the months following Scott’s shooting when he was confined to a jail cell next door to Roof. Over the course of his testimony, it was clear that Savage hoped to humanize Slager while convincing the jury that he performed to the best of his ability during his time as an officer.
Beginning with his account of the day of the shooting, Slager described it as just a normal Saturday morning. The day before Easter, Slager had planned to take a few days for the holiday to spend time with his family. Stopping Scott’s Mercedes-Benz for a non-functioning third brake light, Slager was seated in his vehicle when, after an initial warning, Scott fled the scene. According to Slager, he assumed that Scott “must have been running for another reason.”
Chasing Scott into an empty lot, Slager pulled his Taser. He claims that Scott continued to wave his hand behind his back in what the officer believed to be an attempt to prevent any Taser fire from making contact. Slager’s first shot proved ineffective, but after reloading the Taser, he was able to subdue Scott with a second shot. Savage asked Slager to describe his physical state as he approached Scott. Slager said he was winded and tired following the chase that led the two approximately 200 yards from the traffic stop.
Slager then claimed that Scott was able to roll onto his back as a struggle ensued. With the Taser wires wrapped around them, Slager said he pressed Scott down on the ground with his left elbow while stunning Scott once again.
“I knew I was going to lose this fight,” Slager told the court as his wife looked on, nervously picking at her hands.
It’s at this point that Slager claims Scott was able to wrestle the Taser from his hands and use the weapon against him. Later, during cross examination by Deputy Solicitor Bruce DuRant, Slager was unable to explain why he neglected to tell other officers who responded to the scene that Scott had used the Taser. While Slager had stated that Scott was able to take control of the Taser when he radioed dispatch after the shooting, it was not until speaking with SLED investigators three days later that he mentioned being tased. Charles Morgan, a forensic psychiatrist, would later testify that the gaps in Slager’s story could be attributed to the effect of stress on his ability to accurately recall exactly what took place.
According to Slager, Scott was able to climb back to his feet after gaining control of the Taser and point the weapon at him. Describing himself as in a state of “total fear that Mr. Scott was coming toward” him, Slager said he “fired until the threat was stopped, like I’m trained to do.”
Focusing on discrepancies between Slager’s recollection and eyewitness video of the shooting, DuRant and assistant solicitor Chad Simpson would press witnesses on the former officer’s mindset after Scott’s death. While Slager claims that Scott was approaching him with the Taser when he decided to open fire, expert witnesses have examined the video to estimate that Scott was at least 17 feet away with his back turned when Slager first pulled the trigger.
Grace Beahm/Post and Courier
Michael Slager watches the eyewitness video of the shooting of Walter Scott
In response to Morgan’s statement that the human brain does not record memories like a camera, Simpson remarked, “You know what does work like a camera? A camera.”
Throughout his testimony, Slager maintained that at the time of the shooting, he believed Scott was a danger. He also acknowledged that if he knew then what he knows now — namely that Scott was unarmed — he never would have pursued Scott. He would have remained in his patrol car and awaited backup. Looking back on his five years with the North Charleston Police Department, Slager was asked to recount instances in which he used his Taser in order to gain compliance from suspects. According to department records, Slager used his Taser 14 times during his career. Each use of force was deemed within justified under department standards. But it would be the final time that Slager pulled his Taser and the moments that followed that would prove the most significant.
“My family has been destroyed by this,” Slager said near the conclusion of his testimony. “The Scott family’s been destroyed by this. It’s horrible.”