Federal authorities are interested in charging the North Charleston police officer who fatally shot Walter Scott, a state prosecutor revealed in court Friday.
While details were scarce, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she had received a “target letter” indicating that federal prosecutors have some interest in a case against Michael Slager.
A bystander’s cellphone video captured the patrolman shooting Scott, who is black, in the back as he ran away April 4 during a traffic stop. U.S. Department of Justice and FBI officials had said soon after the footage surfaced that it would look into any civil rights violations by the white officer.
The development was the first indication that a federal charge could be imminent. As Slager on Friday formally requested a speedy trial, a new charge in federal court could complicate the case and cause further delays.
Friday’s hearing in downtown Charleston served as a chance for opposing attorneys to discuss their progress. A judge also considered arguments that faulted the State Law Enforcement Division’s handling of evidence, though he made no rulings on that issue.
Wilson, the chief prosecutor for Charleston and Berkeley counties, did not discuss the particular federal charge that Slager could face. But Slager’s defense attorney, Andy Savage, said it could pertain to the excessive use of force.
Such alleged abuses are typically prosecuted under the federal “Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law” statute, said Miller Shealy, a former federal prosecutor. That crime carries no minimum prison term. When death results, the maximum sentence is life in prison or, in rare cases, execution.
If the state case against Slager were to fall short of a conviction, a federal charge could serve as a backstop. Trying him in both state and federal courts on separate charges related to the same shooting also isn’t double jeopardy, Shealy said.
“In terms of what’s going on around the country (with other police shootings), I’m not surprised they’re getting involved,” Shealy, now a private attorney, said of the federal authorities. “They could be doing it to let the people (in South Carolina) know the federal government is standing with them.”
As word of the federal case was aired publicly in court, Savage pushed for a quick resolution to the state case, urging Circuit Judge Clifton Newman to set a trial date in March or April. He said the filing of a federal charge could have a significant impact on Slager’s defense.
The attorney filed the speedy trial motion after Wilson said she would ask for Slager’s trial to be set for November.
“Another year of waiting is not within our reason,” said Savage, who has represented Slager for free. “His well-being is in jeopardy not just in this courtroom, but in the other jurisdiction, as well.”
Scheduling the trial, though, is complicated by Wilson’s other high-profile prosecution of Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white man charged with murder in state court and with federal hate crimes in the deadly attack on Emanuel AME Church. A state Supreme Court order excuses Wilson from appearing in other cases through Roof’s July trial.
Newman made no ruling on Slager’s trial date. He repeated a defense point that Wilson has a large group of prosecutors who could try the case while she focuses on Roof.
“What’s going on in another courtroom can’t be the basis to deprive this defendant of his constitutional rights,” the judge said. “The court recognizes the right of any accused to a speedy trial. That’s partially enhanced when the defendant is incarcerated.”
Slager has been jailed since his arrest three days after the shooting that renewed a national focus on police officers’ use of deadly force against black men. The judge rejected Slager’s bid for bail in September. But with a trial possibly not happening until late next year, Savage said he would file another plea for his client’s release.
Other arguments Friday over evidence, particularly Slager’s Taser, hinted at what could become an issue whenever a jury hears the case.
Savage asked the judge to rule that state authorities had violated a court order to preserve evidence when they sent away the stun gun for testing. At Taser’s headquarters in Arizona, experts handled the device without gloves and fired it, Savage has said.
The defense team contends that Scott’s DNA, his fingerprints or pieces of Slager’s uniform on the device could indicate that the Taser was turned against the officer during the tussle before the shooting. Savage said the tests requested by SLED might have destroyed any of that evidence.
But Wilson on Friday said any damage probably already had been done before Newman issued the order to preserve evidence.
SLED experts had decided early on to swab the entire gun for DNA instead of lifting fingerprints and carefully looking for DNA in small increments, Wilson said. The experts came across traces of Slager’s and Scott’s DNA, but they did not note where on the device the evidence was found. Agents later handled the device without wearing gloves, further diminishing the value of any evidence still on it.
That’s why, Wilson said, the testing at Taser likely destroyed nothing.
“The genie was out of the bottle,” she said, “and it was out of the bottle in April when (SLED) swabbed it for DNA.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.