Documents: SLED missed bullets at Walter Scott scene, deleted other evidence

A visitor stops in April at the scene where Walter Scott was killed April 4.

Private investigators for the former North Charleston policeman jailed in Walter Scott’s death found two bullets that had been missed by state agents who examined the shooting scene two weeks earlier, according to court documents filed by the officer’s attorney.

But it was how the State Law Enforcement Division handled other evidence that has prompted a point of legal contention and a motion by Michael Slager’s attorney for a court inquiry into the agency’s destruction of evidence.

After collecting the projectiles, an agent reported that he redid three-dimensional scans of the scene because the originals had been deleted, according to a SLED document included in the motion.

The attorney, Andy Savage of Charleston, said this week that it cannot be known whether the destruction of the scans made on the day of the shooting will have any impact on the case until SLED provides a more detailed explanation for the action.

SLED spokesman Thom Berry said he could not comment on any specifics of the agency’s ongoing investigation or on court documents. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson also did not immediately discuss whether the recent development would affect the prosecution.

Savage said Wilson has cooperated with his attempts to get information.

“We think that everything that has to do with this case should be preserved for follow-up,” he said. “We won’t know if it’s meaningful until we get some answers.”

The move added to a list of concerns Savage said he has developed because SLED has used the media to control a narrative of the April 4 shooting and failed to reveal any evidence that could help explain the events leading to his client’s actions.

A bystander’s cellphone video showed the officer shooting at Scott eight times from behind. Scott, 50, was running away after what authorities and Slager’s previous attorney said was a struggle over the officer’s Taser.

Slager, 33, who is charged with murder, has been jailed since his arrest three days after the shooting. His wife gave birth to a boy in May, but he has not asked for bail.

The recent developments brought to light through court filings came on the heels of a Post and Courier investigation, titled “Shots Fired,” that revealed shortcomings in SLED probes into 235 officer-involved shootings since 2009. Basic information sometimes was never collected, and police officers often were never pressed for answers to key questions.

Slager stopped Scott’s 1990 Mercedes-Benz 300E because of a broken brake light. Scott ran away, and Slager ran after him, getting into a struggle that unfolded before the bystander’s video began.

Authorities have not made public whether Slager’s Taser was ever fired during the confrontation. The bystander who filmed the shooting, though, has said he heard the weapon go off, and the SLED document in the recent court motion referred to two stun gun cartridges found at the scene.

On the day of Scott’s death, SLED agents got an initial account of what the police said had occurred. But they did not get an interview with Slager until the cellphone video surfaced.

Two days after the footage was made public, SLED Chief Mark Keel said in a statement that his agents had been suspicious of the official account from the start. “It is our nature throughout the investigation process to analyze all of the evidence in this and any other case to ensure a fair and impartial investigation,” Keel said then.

The evidence they missed, though, was inside a perimeter agents established at the crime scene, according to Savage’s court filing. On the day of the shooting, agents with a metal detector looked over a pile of leaves, near two fences and around where Scott’s body had been lying, but they did not find the objects.

The private investigators hired by Savage, Steve Russell of Mount Pleasant and John Paolucci of Brewster, N.Y., came across the bullets on April 20 while walking through the same area. They called deputies to the site, and SLED agents later collected the evidence.

Lab experts matched one of the bullets to Slager’s .45-caliber pistol, Savage said, but the other was in such poor condition that it could not be linked to a specific firearm.

Two days after the discovery and 19 days after the shooting, agents again returned and used a FARO laser scanner to create a 3-D rendering of the site.

An agent had started to scan the scene on the day of the shooting, Savage said, but another told him to stop. “The first scan was deleted due to the scanning process not being completed,” the SLED document stated.

The deletion flouted SLED’s obligation to preserve all evidence, Savage contended. It also raised more concern about SLED’s handling of the case because the agency had “aggressively crafted the narrative of this incident and its investigation by way of documents and statements released to the press,” his motion stated.

“The prosecution of Michael Slager has attracted a high degree of local interest, as well as nationwide media scrutiny,” the filing added. “Even the most unsophisticated law enforcement agency knows that it has a duty to preserve all potentially relevant evidence under these circumstances.”

Savage asked Circuit Judge Clifton Newman, who has been assigned to preside over the case, to order agents to preserve other evidence and to look into why the scans were deleted.

Scott’s family has praised SLED for its swift arrest that led to a June 8 indictment. Justin Bamberg, a state representative and attorney for the family, said he had not been aware of concerns about the probe.

“Given the physical evidence that would have been at the scene that day and given the video that surfaced, SLED ... was aware of the severity of the situation,” Bamberg said. “I have no reason to believe they haven’t done the absolute best they can.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.