A Charleston County grand jury on Monday indicted the former North Charleston policeman who fatally shot Walter Scott, marking the second time in the past year that a white South Carolina officer has been formally charged with murder in a black man’s death.
The expected milestone in prosecutors’ case against Michael Slager came two months after the officer fired eight times as the 50-year-old Scott ran away. Captured on a bystander’s cellphone, a video of the shooting became a visual battle cry for residents who long lamented police tactics in North Charleston and for activists nationwide who questioned how quickly officers resort to deadly force.
Slager has been jailed since his arrest, which was prompted by the footage that surfaced publicly three days after the April 4 shooting.
The indictment allows the case to inch closer to trial. A team of the area’s three top prosecutors plans to pursue a trial in Charleston despite concerns about fairness.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said Monday that she had received the last part of a file from the State Law Enforcement Division, whose agents examine most officer-involved shootings in South Carolina.
A SLED investigator, not prosecutors, posed the evidence to the grand jury earlier Monday.
“The prosecution work has just begun,” Wilson said. “We’re going to be focused on getting all admissible evidence before the judge and jury and pursuing this case vigorously. ... Just because you have video ... doesn’t mean it’s the be-all, end-all.”
The indictment was the only one authorities sought Monday. Wilson said she has not seen evidence supporting charges against anyone else connected with the shooting.
Slager was at least the fourth South Carolina law officer to be charged in a shooting since 2009 and the second charged with murder.
A murder case against Richard Combs, the Eutawville police chief who killed Bernard Bailey in 2011, ended in mistrial earlier this year after Orangeburg County jurors couldn’t agree on Combs’ fate. He likely will be retried this summer.
Slager’s attorney, Andy Savage of Charleston, has not requested a chance for his client to post bail.
Savage commonly defends officers who fire their guns in the line of duty and often represents residents who claim self-defense in deadly encounters.
Slager has said that he “felt threatened” by Scott as the two struggled over the officer’s Taser.
Savage said his attempts to view state evidence in Slager’s case have not succeeded.
“We remain at a disadvantage in addressing any questions,” Savage said in a statement. “Until we have an opportunity to fully evaluate the state’s case and to compare it with our own investigation, we will not be commenting.”
Scott’s family members welcomed news of the indictment, and their attorneys thanked community members for letting the legal process play out. The shooting had sparked protests and calls for police reform in North Charleston, but the demonstrations were tame compared to others nationwide that turned violent after police-involved deaths.
“We’re very happy and pleased,” one of Scott’s brothers, Rodney Scott, said during a brief news conference with his parents.
If he is convicted of murder, Slager would face between 30 years and life in prison, and he would not be eligible for parole.
South Carolina does not have various degrees of murder charges. Prosecutors must instead prove that a defendant had some level of premeditation, or malice, before acting, Wilson said. “It can be seconds before,” she said.
The confrontation in early April started with a traffic stop over a broken brake light on Remount Road, and it quickly escalated when Scott ran for his Mercedes-Benz.
He was wanted on a charge of failing to pay child support. No detailed public accounts have described what happened when Slager encountered Scott during a foot pursuit in a vacant lot.
Slager would later say in a statement from his former attorney that Scott tried to overpower him and take his Taser. The attorney said he was confident that the public would understand Slager’s actions once the facts came out.
Standing nearby, Feidin Santana used his cellphone to film Scott briefly struggling with Slager, then running away. Slager pulled his pistol and fired four shots into Scott’s back.
Another bullet hit one of Scott’s ears, and three others missed.
The footage eventually made it to investigators. Slager was fired and arrested after an interview with SLED.
When they saw the video, local activists said it showed what they had long suspected: that officers too quickly use force amid their aggressive patrols to temper violence in a city once labeled as one of the nation’s most violent.
The tactics overwhelmingly targeted members of poor, mostly black communities in North Charleston, they alleged.
One of the activists, James Johnson, said Monday’s indictment should prompt authorities statewide to take the lead in more thoroughly investigating police shootings.
“Now, I would like to see (Slager) get life (in prison),” said Johnson, South Carolina president of the National Action Network. “That will send a message to other policemen across America that you cannot shoot a person in the back. I’m just sick and tired of black folks being treated like animals.”
Slager had not been disciplined in his more than five years with the North Charleston Police Department, but he now faces at least three lawsuits in incidents involving his Taser use, including the run-in with Scott. Slager had fired his Taser at suspects 12 times in his police career, according to documents obtained by The Post and Courier.
The paperwork showed a rapid increase in Taser episodes in 2014, when he used the device six times.
Christopher Stewart of Atlanta, a Scott family attorney, said a federal suit he plans to file likely will look at Slager’s history and the “general practices of the department as a whole.”
The indictment “is just step 1,” he said. “We’re going to patiently wait for the criminal trial. The family is going to patiently wait to see if the city and the Police Department and the chief is going to accept responsibility.”
On Monday, Wilson fought off public criticism that her office could not fairly prosecute Slager because it often works with North Charleston officers. She and her two highest-ranking deputies, Bruce DuRant and Bryan Alfaro, will handle the case.
The widely viewed video of Scott’s death also has prompted fears that bias would affect jurors chosen locally.
“The issue is not whether ... someone has heard about this case,” Wilson said. “The issue is whether ... they can put everything they’ve heard aside and make a decision based on the facts. ... I feel sure the people of Charleston County can decide it.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.