Video no guarantee in court, legal experts say

Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, charged with murder in the death of Walter Scott, appeared on a video screen at a bond hearing on Tuesday at the Al Cannon Detention Center.

Shocking video of North Charleston Patrolman Michael Slager fatally shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott as he ran from a traffic stop Saturday resulted in a murder charge and nationwide criticism, but legal experts said the video doesn’t guarantee a conviction.

“You’ve got eight shots fired at a guy who’s running away,” said Charleston School of Law Professor Miller W. Shealy Jr., a former prosecutor. “It is horrific footage and very difficult to watch, and there doesn’t appear to be any excuses.”

But despite the video, said Shealy, “Based on my experience I wouldn’t say any case is easy, or a slam dunk.”

If the case goes to trial, questions will likely be raised about what happened before the start of the video, he said.

“We don’t see the stop, we don’t see the car,” said Shealy. “For the prosecution, it’s a strong case based just on the video, unless some strange things happened before the video started.”

Slager’s newly-hired lawyer, prominent Charleston defense attorney Andy Savage, said in an email statement Wednesday that it was too early to comment on Slager’s case and that he was investigating.

University of South Carolina law professor Colin Miller said the defense could face some credibility issues, however, because the video discredited the official account of what took place. Police initially said Slager fired at Scott to protect himself after Scott tried to gain control of his Taser, but the video shows Slager firing repeatedly at Scott as he flees across a field.

Miller’s work includes a blog dealing with criminal evidence issues. It was named one of the nation’s top 100 legal blogs by the American Bar Association. He said that in court, Slager’s lawyer would have to convince a jury that Scott, who was unarmed and had been stopped for a broken brake light, posed a serious threat to Slager or the public at large.

“Looking at the video, it’s hard to see a jury believing that,” Miller said. “You can imagine the video being played in the courtroom.

“The officer in this case, to prove self-defense, would have to prove that he was protecting himself, or protecting others,” he said. “From the video, it appears more retaliatory.”

Ninth Judicial Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson declined to discuss the case against Slager.

“As a lawyer and prosecutor, I am subject to special rules limiting my ability to make public comments about pending cases and defendants in criminal matters,” she said. “For these reasons, my office cannot comment on the merits of the case.”

Wilson said her office is working with the State Law Enforcement Division to prepare to seek an indictment when the Charleston grand jury next meets, in May.

“What will surely (also) be coming is a civil lawsuit,” Shealy predicted.

Wilson pledged to keep the public and media informed about the scheduling of any court hearings.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.