Officers call it the Yellow Brick Road. It's a short, jaundiced path that cuts through an empty lot in North Charleston where on the morning of April 4, 2015, Walter Scott was shot and killed. Now, more than a year since Michael Slager opened fire following a struggle with Scott, attorneys defending the former officer have placed the practices of the North Charleston Police Department and state investigators on trial in an effort to save their client from a life behind bars.
The second week of Slager's state trial began with testimony from Clarence Habersham, the first officer to respond to the scene following Slager's call for backup. Habersham was assigned to assist Slager in patrolling the Charleston Farms area, but he had been dispatched to pick up a bench warrant when he heard Slager radio for assistance. Rushing to the scene, Habersham arrived to find Scott's body lying on the ground, handcuffed. Habersham removed the handcuffs and cut off Scott's shirt to provide emergency medical assistance, but there was no response.
Throughout the trial, lead defense attorney Andy Savage has been highly critical of the North Charleston Police Department's management of personnel on the morning of the shooting. With as many as half of the officers usually assigned to patrol the central and southern sections of the city off duty and Habersham and another officer responding to calls from dispatch, Savage argues that Slager was the only officer "available for service" at the time of the shooting. As was the case during pretrial hearings, Savage continued to assert last week that the department did not instate a mandatory minimum manpower requirement until July 2016. Responding to questioning from Savage regarding the importance of immediate assistance, Habersham testified that having more than one officer on the scene increases a suspect's willingness to comply.
"It's your practice as it is the other patrol officers in North Charleston when they hear somebody is being stopped for a traffic violation to go in that direction," Savage said during his cross examination of Habersham. "Because you look out for each other. You protect each other because in a traffic stop you never know what it is going to bring. Could be nothing. Could be a shooting."
With the defense continuing to argue that more officers on the scene that day would have led to a different outcome, prosecutors turned questioning toward Slager's decision to use force in trying to apprehend Scott. An examination of Slager's Taser showed that on the day of his chase with Scott, the weapon was activated seven times — once first thing in the morning as Slager tested the Taser, and six times during his altercation with Scott, who was attempting to flee the scene of a traffic stop on foot. Prosecutors would later reveal that Slager had used his Taser to subdue suspects a total of 14 times over four years, compared to Habersham, who used his Taser three times over a nine-year period.
Savage rejected this line of questioning, saying that "to compare one police officer to another police officer is meaningless," adding that different officers are faced with varying threats and situations. During his testimony, Habersham described Slager as a "proactive" officer, but was reluctant to label him as aggressive.
Just as on the day when they responded to the scene of the shooting, Habersham was followed by Lt. Daniel Bowman and Sgt. James Gann. Bowman was patrolling the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood when he heard Slager's call for assistance. Rushing to the scene, Bowman arrived to find Slager with abrasions on his knees and a cut on his finger. Slager claimed that Scott had taken hold of his Taser during a brief struggle and turned the weapon against him. It was at this point that Slager said he opened fire.
- Grace Beahm/Post and Courier
- Clarence Habersham, the second officer on the scene, described Slager as a "proactive" officer
Like the other officers who spoke with Slager after the shooting, this was the story he presented to his fellow officers that day and later to SLED investigators. It was during the testimony of Almon Brown, the former SLED forensics expert who examined the scene of the shooting, that photos of Walter Scott's body were shown in the courtroom. Brown, after discussing the graphic images, said that he grew concerned over the location of the bullet wounds in Scott's back, which didn't quite line up with the briefing that he received on the day of the shooting.
With the threat of rain and Scott's body left lying in a bed of ants, investigators hurried to collect evidence while preserving the scene. The defense alleges that agents may have been careless in their haste. From not properly examining Slager's complete uniform, to being unable to locate all the bullets and the final missing Taser probe fired that day, Savage said the investigation was indicative of a failure on the part of the state of South Carolina and that the jury has been provided with incomplete evidence. In the weeks following SLED's canvassing of the shooting scene, one of the defense's investigators was able to track down missing bullets using a Fisher-Price metal detector, Savage said during a pointed reveal to the jury.
As the trial's second week drew to a close, Anthony Scott was posed a question to which everyone in the courtroom already knew the answer.
"Do you have brothers?" asked lead prosecutor Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson.
"Oh yes, I do have brothers. I had two brothers. I have one brother now," Scott answered before identifying himself as the older brother of Walter Scott. Looking back on their final conversation, Anthony Scott recalled learning that Walter was in the process of obtaining a 1991 Mercedes-Benz, the vehicle he was driving the day he died.
"After he sent me the text and showed me that it was a Benz and I saw that it was a Benz, I was very troubled because I said, 'That's a Mercedes-Benz. You live in North Charleston, and you know that's a highly profiled area. I don't think that's a very wise thing to do,'" he told the solicitor. "Me and him never had discussed his child-support issue, and I asked him, 'Are you current?'"
Walter Scott was not current on his payments, and his brother begged him to reconsider purchasing the car. Prosecutors allege that Scott fled the scene of the traffic stop in fear of jail time for overdue child-support payments before his fatal altercation with Slager.
Following Anthony's testimony, Lt. Charles Ghent of SLED recounted the interview with Slager conducted by he and a fellow investigator just days after the shooting. Retelling his account of a chase and struggle with Scott, Slager told agents that as he approached a temporarily incapacitated suspect he could hear a voice coming from the phone Scott had used to call his mother during the chase. Slager again described his struggle with Scott that allegedly ended with his Taser being turned against him. Samuel Stewart, SLED forensic investigator and DNA analyst, testified that genetic material from both Slager and Scott was found on samples taken from the Taser.
Tired from the chase, Slager claimed he feared for his life as Scott began to approach him with the Taser extended in his right hand. Slager stepped back, pulled his weapon, shuffled to the left, and fired as Scott turned, according to the account he provided SLED agents last year. At the time of the interview with investigators, Slager was unaware that agents had seen an eyewitness video of the shooting that prosecutors have used as a key piece of evidence in refuting the former officer's account of what happened that day. Following the initial interview with Slager, Ghent says he learned that Scott's family was preparing to release the video to the media. Returning to the site of their previous meeting, agents showed the video to Slager and his attorney at the time. Ghent says he then received the call that Slager was charged with the murder of Walter Scott.
As last Thursday's court proceedings continued, Ghent was cross examined by Savage, who questioned the investigator as to the reason the former officer's bullet-proof vest wasn't seized and tested following the shooting. Savage claims that such an examination would have possibly proven that Scott had attempted to use Slager's Taser against him and potentially justified a lethal use of force.
"You know that this whole case isn't about the shooting. It's about what led to the shooting," Savage said to Ghent.
Turning his focus to the interview that Ghent and another agent conducted with Slager, Savage asked why the discussion was not recorded. The only evidence of Slager's comments that day come from the handwritten notes taken by the two agents. Ghent said that their decision at the time was to obtain a written statement from the officer, nothing more. In the 12 pages of handwritten notes taken by Ghent, he said that at no point did Slager reveal that he had actually been tased by Scott. Recalling the video and audio evidence that is available from the day of the shooting, Ghent agreed with Savage that Slager's demands for Scott to stop and warnings that the officer would be using his Taser were captured by the microphone attached to his uniform.
"Was there ever a time from your investigation that Mr. Scott surrendered to Officer Slager in terms of statements, in terms of putting his hands up, doing anything to indicate that he was not going to continue on the path that he had chosen to take?" Savage asked Ghent.
"No, not until he was shot and killed," Ghent answered.