A white police officer who fired eight shots at the back of an unarmed black motorist during a foot chase is guilty of murder or manslaughter, a prosecutor said Wednesday after a monthlong trial. Malice the evidence required for a murder conviction had to be in officer Michael Slager’s mind the instant he fired at Walter Scott, who at that point was running away and posed no threat to him, she argued. Five of the bullets struck Scott in the back, felling him at a distance of dozens of feet. Manslaughter a lesser charge the judge agreed to include Wednesday at the prosecution’s request requires proof the killing was done in the heat of passion, after being provoked, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson told jurors in her closing arguments.
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But even if Slager felt provoked because Scott resisted arrest despite being repeatedly stunned by a Taser, that’s no justification for killing the man, she argued. “Just because someone is provoked, it does not give someone the right to do whatever they want when they want,” she said. Scott ran from his car into a vacant lot after Slager pulled him over for a broken taillight in April 2015. Slager chased him down, but Scott refused to be subdued and tried to run away again. A bystander recorded the final moments of the encounter, in a video that shocked the nation.
Michael Slager was fired from the North Charleston police force shortly after the video began spreading on social media. But the images don’t show the whole story, defense attorney Andy Savage said in his closings. It doesn’t show Slager ordering Scott to stop before shooting him with his Taser. It shows only the very end of their struggle over the stun gun. And Slager had no way to know Scott wasn’t armed, Savage said.”This is about the felonious conduct Mr. Scott engaged in,” Savage argued. “Who attacks a policeman for a brake light? Who does that?”
The 55 witnesses included a toxicologist who said cocaine was found in Scott’s body. “Whether he was on cocaine, alcohol or whatever it was, he chose to attack a police officer,” Savage told the jurors. Slager, he said, didn’t shoot Scott “because of a brake light. He shot him in fear for his life.” The jury consisting of 11 white people and one black man watched the cellphone video repeatedly during the trial. Wednesday, they were able to see the crime scene directly. Court officials and one representative each from the defense and prosecution went along; the media was kept out.
As the jury visited the vacant lot, Judge Clifton Newman granted the prosecution’s request to consider manslaughter as well as murder, and Savage did not object. Since prosecutors are not alleging aggravating circumstances that could bring a death sentence, Slager could face 30 years to life if convicted of murder. Manslaughter is punishable by two to 30 years in prison. After assuring the judge that he understood the risk of testifying in his own defense, Slager, 36, took the stand Tuesday. He said he was in “total fear” as Scott resisted arrest and grabbed his Taser.
The bystander began recording about then. The video shows Scott breaking away from Slager and trying to run. “At that point, I pulled my firearm and pulled the trigger,” Slager testified. “I fired until the threat was stopped, as I was trained to do.”