Grace Beahm/Post & Courier
Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager stands alongside attorneys for the defense and prosecution in a Charleston courtroom on Nov. 3
With the possible charge of manslaughter now up for consideration, the jury in the trial of Michael Slager will now decide the former North Charleston officer’s guilt or innocence for the death of Walter Scott.
Over the past five weeks, jurors have weighed the charge of murder, which carries with it a sentence of 30 years to life in prison. Wednesday afternoon, after returning from a brief visit to the spot where Scott was shot, the jury learned that Slager could instead be found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter and serve two to 30 years in prison. Separating the two charges is the presence of malice, which Circuit Judge Clifton Newman explained to the jurors to mean hatred, ill will, hostility and the intentional wrongdoing of an unjust act without excuse. But, as Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson pointed out to the court, Slager’s guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Not beyond every doubt. Not beyond a shadow of a doubt. But a reasonable doubt,” Wilson told the jurors.
Launching into his closing statements, lead defense attorney Andy Savage began by revisiting a line of argument that he had focused on during pretrial hearings. He applauded the willingness of the jurors to serve before framing the narrative of Scott’s shooting presented by the media as incomplete. Focusing on the widespread eyewitness video of the shooting and SLED’s investigation, Savage asked jurors to consider the truth of the case, “the things they have seen and the things they haven’t seen.”
Declaring that the media and state investigators need to do a better job in presenting the truth of what happened that day Scott was killed, and that truth is ultimately left to the jurors. Reiterating the testimony provided by Slager just the day before, Savage alleged that the former officer was left all alone in fear for his life. Referring to the pictures of cuts on Slager’s hands following his struggle with Scott, Savage said the injuries were consistent with a man who had a Taser ripped from his grasp.
Savage flipped through the eyewitness video frame by frame, hoping to convince jurors that the blur of shapes and colors will reveal that Scott had the upper hand.
“It’s not a clear, perfect video, but you know what’s going on,” Savage told the jury.
After five week’s of trial, Savage closed by asking the jury to question the message that would be sent to other officers if Slager is convicted of murder.
“Their greatest protection is the support of their community,” he said, adding that to charge a police officer under these circumstances with the most serious criminal offense undermines the work of all those who wear a badge.
The lead prosecutor Wilson followed up Savage’s statement regarding police by saying that Slager has an obligation to his fellow officers and those in the community to take responsibility for his actions and ability to serve on the force. Slager’s attorneys have argued on multiple occasions that he feared for his life during the struggle with Scott and was exhausted from carrying the weight of his equipment. But for Wilson, Slager’s actions cannot be justified by his uniform.
“Our whole criminal justice system rides on the back of law enforcement. It’s not just the weight of the duty belt. It’s not the weight of the vest,” said Wilson. “They have the weight of our nation on their backs ... But because of that they have to be held responsible when they mess up.”
While the defense called a slew of officers who worked side by side with Slager and spoke of him as a careful, reliable patrolman, Wilson warned that loyalty between officers is a necessary part of survival — but she also asked the jury to consider that loyalty when weighing the testimony of Slager’s former colleagues.
Refuting claims that Scott had a criminal intent when he ran, Wilson pointed to his phone records from the day of the shooting, which show he placed a final call to his mother as he ran from Slager. Although the defense claims that Scott posed a serious physical threat to Slager during their struggle on the ground, the solicitor reminded the jury that no skin or DNA from Slager was found under Scott’s fingernails. After almost an hour and a half of speaking to the jury, Wilson played the video of Scott’s shooting one final time
“That badge is supposed to be a shield, not a sword,” Wilson told the jury. “Michael Slager took an oath to protect us, to protect people, even from themselves. The charge is murder. You have the option of voluntary manslaughter ... SLED charged it. I indicted it. It’s time for you to name it. To give it its proper name.”
She added, “Our community, our courtroom can only have one fountain for justice. It’s time for Michael Slager to take his drink.”