Still waiting for justice Slager defense tactics, pace of reforms ‘trying’ for Walter Scott’s family

Walter Scott Sr. and Judy Scott listen as Anthony Scott talks about his brother, Walter Scott, and what the family have gone through since he was killed by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager last year.

Walter Scott’s family called for peace after the world watched grainy cellphone footage of a white North Charleston police officer firing eight shots at the 50-year-old black man’s back.

They embraced city officials and commended them for quickly condemning officer Michael Slager’s actions as he was charged with murder.

They asked for patience from a community working to improve the Police Department.

But a year later, their patience has worn thin.

The conversation about police reform has not translated into the changes Scott’s family hoped to see, despite a department that says it’s concentrating on strengthening ties and trust with the community.

And some now seem intent on casting the blame for Scott’s death on his personal failings rather than Slager’s actions on April 4, 2015, they said.

“It’s becoming trying now,” said Anthony Scott, Walter Scott’s brother. “But we believe that we will have justice at the end of the day and that’s what we want. We won’t stop until that’s what we get.”

He sat beside his mother and father on a brown leather sofa in the dimly lit sitting room of their West Ashley home, a cozy space filled with family photographs and knickknacks.

The three spoke to The Post and Courier in measured tones, their voices rarely rising until the subject turned to court proceedings and an emerging defense strategy they believe is focused on “assassinating” Walter Scott’s character in painting Slager as the victim.

Slager’s defense team has not shied away from highlighting Scott’s sometimes troubled history in court. His attorneys contend that blood tests showing traces of cocaine and alcohol could account for Scott’s behavior during the traffic stop that ended in his death.

They’ve asked for samples of Scott’s hair and brain in an effort to build their case. They’ve asked for Coast Guard records that show Scott’s two-year service ended with drug-related allegations.

None of these things surprised the Scott family. No one claimed that Walter, the middle child, was perfect. But they said it’s difficult for them to understand what it all has to do with how the shooting unfolded.

“Some of what they were talking about, we already knew about,” said mother Judy Scott. “But that didn’t change who he was.”

Her brow furrowed, and she clasped her hands when she talked about her son, the pain still lingering in her expressions. Her husband’s anger was palpable as he described efforts to discredit his son.

“I still haven’t been able to come to grips with this yet,” Walter Scott Sr. said. “And (the defense) is coming up with all these things, trying to build a case, and I don’t know where it’s going.”

Andy Savage, Slager’s attorney, did not respond to two email requests and a phone message seeking comment. Slager, however, has insisted that he fired at Scott to stop a threat. Savage has contended that Scott, while under the influence of drugs, beat his client and grabbed Slager’s Taser just before the shooting.

Scott occasionally drank — though his mother said she never once saw him drunk — smoked cigarettes and may have dabbled in drugs, but he was always respectable, his family said. He had keys to the family home, no one hid money from him and he didn’t fight with his parents. No one feared for their safety when he was around, they said.

Scott hadn’t committed a violent crime when he was pulled over for a broken brake light. He owed child support and was unarmed when he ran from Slager. So, his family asked, how did a simple traffic stop go so wrong? It’s a question that haunts them, a question they repeat as if saying it one more time might produce an answer. It nags at them, like the frustration they feel knowing Slager is free on bail.

“Even if someone does run away from a police officer, that does not warrant the death penalty,” said Anthony Scott. “The defense will continue to bring these things up, but we know we have to be strong because, at the end of the day, we continue to know that these things are insignificant to what happened.”

Whether a jury sees details about Scott’s past could be up to Circuit Judge Clifton Newman, who is presiding over the case.

South Carolina court rules govern when character evidence, such as a victim’s drug use, can be used at trial. If prosecutors challenge the use of Scott’s history and the autopsy drug tests during trial, the judge must decide whether it’s pertinent to the shooting.

From the family’s perspective, little in the North Charleston Police Department has changed since Scott was killed.

Judy Scott said she believes police are still targeting areas with large black populations. She said that friction remains between residents and officers, and the department appears to have an “ego problem.”

Anthony Scott accused the Police Department of continuing to profile blacks, Hispanics and the poor. He said many police departments are moving in the right direction by using dashboard and body cameras, but real progress isn’t possible without a change in philosophy, as well.

“There has to be a change in these officers’ hearts. That’s where it has to start,” he said. “And yes, they do have a dangerous job, and we need them ... but everybody is not a bad guy. Everybody is not a criminal, and you can’t go into situations thinking that you’re dealing with a bad guy. You’re dealing with a citizen, and you’re here to serve the citizens.”

Police Chief Eddie Driggers said he believes police are always trying to do the right thing, even though they don’t always succeed. He said there was no quota system in place for traffic stops and that racial profiling has no place in his department. Still, the department is constantly working to improve and maintain openness and cooperation, he said.

“I don’t believe there is a police department that is more transparent right now,” he said.

Police are regularly reaching out to build stronger relationships with residents, and officials are working with community leaders to build a more active citizen advisory board to give police feedback on policies and initiatives, he said.

The family also called for a complete overhaul of the state’s child-support system and said they were disappointed in the lack of discussion on that front since the shooting. Scott had lost work and spent time in jail because of missed payments.

Anthony Scott said he appreciated police efforts to reach out to the community. He said events like the community policing forum held March 23 are helpful in building relationships. That event, however, was held in the city of Charleston and drew only 50 people.

“When they do have those types of things, the citizens should come out, and they should let their voices be heard,” he said. He said he would also like to see a more diverse group of officers represented at community events, adding that it’s usually the same crowd at every one. And the family would like to see an honest discussion on racial profiling to ensure that all residents are treated equally regardless of their race, ethnicity or economic status, he said.

“It should be the same thing across the board,” he said.

Scott’s family wants his legacy to be one of “great change” in policing issues such as training, use of force and community relations, not only in North Charleston but across the nation, they said.

It’s already made a difference in North Charleston, according to City Attorney Brady Hair. He and other top staff are much more knowledgeable about national policing trends and issues. The Scott shooting also prompted city staff to look deeper at the racial and economic issues facing city residents.

“We know about these issues more than we ever have, and I think this is going to help us,” Hair said.

Still, city officials have stressed a message that Scott’s death was the result of one officer’s poor decisions, and it’s not indicative of the Police Department as a whole.

“From Day 1, it was portrayed nationally as a racist event.” Hair said. “What evidence is there that it had to do with racism?”

Slager’s attorney, Savage, also doesn’t see race as a factor in the incident, but he has resisted the narrative that Slager was operating in a vacuum. He has alleged that the Police Department’s aggressive policing methods were a factor leading to the confrontation with Scott.

The past year has not dulled the Scott family’s pain.

For weeks after her son’s death, Judy Scott waited for his phone call. All she wanted was to see his face, to hear him tell her one more time, “I love you, Smurf.”

Instead, she teared up when she saw someone who looked like Scott or when she ate something she knew he would savor.

His four children were left to process their last memory of their father — the video of the shooting. The youngest is 17 years old, impressionable and trying to cope without a father when he needs one the most, Anthony Scott said.

“I don’t even know how to begin to deal with that at 17, at 21, at 23 and 24, and to have to live with that for the rest of my life,” he said. “That’s very tragic, very tragic.”

The $6.5 million settlement from the city went to Scott’s children, but Anthony Scott said there is no amount of money that could change what happened. It will help them live a more comfortable life, he said, but it won’t fill the void left by their father’s death.

Scott’s family said their belief in God gives them strength to keep moving forward.

“We’re never going to forget Walter,” Anthony Scott said. “We’re never going to forget what happened, but knowing that this man is in prison serving time for what he did, that would most certainly help. And I think there’s nothing more I could ask for than to get justice.”

Glenn Smith and Andrew Knapp contributed to this report. Reach Melissa Boughton at 843-937-5594 or at mboughtonPC.