Opposing attorneys in the prosecution of Michael Slager on Thursday delivered impassioned accounts that offered a glimpse of what could prove to be a hotly contested trial for the former North Charleston police officer who shot Walter Scott to death.
To his defense team, Slager was doing his job when he stopped Scott’s car, trying to fulfill his department-mandated quota of three traffic stops every shift for minor violations. In the eyes of some observers, it amounted to a stunning indictment of North Charleston police policy that affirms residents’ long-held complaints.
To prosecutors, Slager became an executioner when he fired eight shots as the 50-year-old man ran away, then tried to plant evidence and lie to concoct a story of self-defense.
In front of a rapt crowd of supporters from both sides who filled a downtown courtroom, the attorneys made their arguments on bail for the 33-year-old former officer charged with murder in Scott’s killing. Hit with a deluge of information in two-day span that included 150 pages of documents, Circuit Judge Clifton Newman said he could not immediately rule on whether Slager should be given a chance to be freed while awaiting trial. He planned to consider the request and later announce a decision, Newman said without setting a timetable.
The arguments during Slager’s bond hearing went on for three hours. For Scott’s family, some of whom tearfully pleaded with Newman to keep Slager behind bars, it was the first opportunity to lay eyes on the man they had seen before only through TV screens, photographs and a cellphone video that showed him shooting Scott in the back.
Scott’s brother, Anthony, stood after the hearing in front of television cameras outside the courthouse. While the proceeding had reopened deeps wounds, his family also found solace in it, he said.
“We did get to see my brother’s murderer for the first time, and I felt something lifted up off of my heart,” he said. “I just ask the country ... to keep the Scott family in prayer and be faithful with us, and let’s let the justice system do what they’re supposed to do.”
Word of the North Charleston Police Department’s quota policy served as the most significant revelation, aired publicly for the first time by Slager’s lead attorney, Andy Savage. But attorneys for Scott’s family said they also had uncovered policies pointing Slager down a career path that ended April 4 at Remount and Craig roads. One of the lawyers, state Rep. Justin Bamberg, vowed to file legislation that would ban police quotas in South Carolina.
Bamberg said the quota system was a “monster in the closet” that North Charleston residents had complained about for years while few officials listened.
A police spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Every jaw in the courtroom dropped to hear that admission,” another family attorney, Chris Stewart, said. “To hear it confirmed ... was shocking.”
Like the family, Savage also blamed city officials, who he said got caught in a whirlwind of public sentiment, protests and riots over the use of force by police officers against black men like Scott. But his client looks forward to returning to the courtroom “so that he can clear his name,” Savage said.
“Slager was charged for his conduct in the midst of a national focus on police conduct,” he said. “They focused on Slager, knowing the history of Missouri, knowing the history of Staten Island, knowing the history of Wisconsin. ... Those decisions (to fire and charge Slager) were premature.”
For 90 minutes, Savage discussed with Newman and 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson the evidence he still sought to support Slager’s case. For another 90 minutes, they launched into their views about whether Slager would pose a danger to the community or a risk of fleeing if he’s released.
Savage’s intent, he said, was to show that Wilson’s case wasn’t the “slam-dunk” that the public though it would be.
Slager woke up that day and checked his Taser to see if its batteries worked. He went on patrol.
Drawing from a statement by Slager, Savage said the officer was bound daily to hit the Police Department’s quota, making three stops for violations such as noisy mufflers, faulty brake lights and booming radios. If he didn’t, Savage said, he wouldn’t get promotions, desired work shifts or the vacation times he wanted.
But a recent Post and Courier analysis raised questions about these kinds of stops and their long-term effects, especially in North Charleston. People are stopped in North Charleston at a far higher rate than any other large city in South Carolina. The police disproportionately stop black men and women, but they defend the practice as a way to detect more serious crime.
It’s what city officials considered “community policing,” Savage said.
“I did what the city of North Charleston told me to do,” Slager said, according to his attorney.
Slager stopped Scott’s Mercedes-Benz for a broken brake light. He was polite, not intrusive as he asked Scott about his car, for which he didn’t have paperwork, Savage said.
After Slager returned to his cruiser, Scott ran. Slager gave chase and confronted Scott, firing his Taser subdue the man. They struggled on the ground.
Shaky, blurry footage from bystander Feidin Santana’s video showed the two on the ground. Through he didn’t show them, Savage said still images from the video clearly depict Slager’s blue uniform under Scott’s green shirt.
“There was a terribly violent struggle,” Savage said. “That video ... showed Mr. Slager being pummeled under the body of Mr. Scott.”
Amid his “felonious conduct,” Savage said, Scott got control of Slager’s Taser. The officer fired.
Since then, Slager has suffered from a false narrative that centered on Santana’s video, the attorney added, and is “standing up, and he’s saying, ‘I’m not guilty of murder.’ ”
Wilson, the lead prosecutor, described a different path that led to Scott’s death. She started where Savage did.
Slager may not have woke up with plans to kill anyone that day, she said, but that doesn’t mean that in the heat of passion, “he developed a heart that was bent on mischief.”
She fought off the defense’s attempt to shift blame to the policies of Mayor Keith Summey or Police Chief Eddie Driggers.
She showed photos of Slager in a clean uniform and a few scrapes on his knee and his finger.
“That is not someone who was pummeled,” Wilson said.
Instead, the bystander’s video and the forensic evidence showed something else, she said: Slager grabbed Scott’s arm after they both stood. The Taser fell to the ground behind Slager.
Two eyewitnesses — Santana and another man in the same alleyway — never saw Scott with the Taser, the prosecutor added.
Even if Scott had the device, it would have been useless from the distance he was standing from Slager, she said. The officer had already fired the two Taser cartridges he had that day. It could deliver a shock only if it were pressed to the officer’s body.
“Slager knows that,” Wilson said.
To Wilson, the video showed an execution. Of the eight .45-caliber bullets that Slager fired, five hit Scott from behind.
The officer showed urgency, she said, only when he ran back after handcuffing Scott’s limp hands and plucked the Taser off the ground. He dropped it near the lifeless body, not knowing he was being filmed, Wilson said.
“He knew that Taser wasn’t going to support self-defense where it was,” she said. “Desperate people do desperate things.”
Slager eventually picked up the Taser. Then, Wilson said, he “doubled down” and said he did nothing wrong in killing Scott in self-defense.
“(Scott) was only interested in taking off” and avoiding arrest, Wilson said. “That’s not something that calls for Mr. Slager being a firing squad. ... This (police officer) got it wrong, very wrong.”
The presentations’ emotional and factual weight fell on many in the courtroom, including Scott’s family and Newman, the judge.
Scott’s mother, Judy Scott, wept as Wilson’s account ended. She later stood and told Newman that Slager shouldn’t get a chance to be freed and hug his infant son for the first time. The boy was born about a month after Slager’s arrest.
“My heart is truly broken,” she said. “I can’t hear his voice again.”
Another of her sons, Anthony Scott, said the family would accept the judge’s decision when it comes. But his brother, he noted, never got a similar chance to post bail.
“He was judged,” he said, “he was convicted, and he was murdered.”
Meanwhile, protesters outside held signs, one emblazoned with the words, “Releasing a murderer is a threat to public safety!”
To experts, the public fervor stirred up by the cellphone video cannot be one of the factors Newman weighs before ruling.
“The judge cannot be swayed by public opinion,” said Charlie Condon, a former state attorney general. “He would decide based on the merits in the courtroom.”
In ending the hearing, Newman said he wanted to ensure that Slager gets a swift trial and that Scott’s family also finds justice.
“This matter,” he said, “is deeply important.
Paul Bowers contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.