The trial of Michael Slager for murder in Walter Scott's shooting promises to be a key moment in the recent nationwide call for scrutiny of police killings.
But for what reason?
The trial's conclusion could determine that. But with the outcome still in the balance, the nation's eyes will turn toward downtown Charleston, the host of this legal intrigue.
In the courtroom, people may hear arguments Slager was just doing his job for a historically aggressive police agency in North Charleston when he was confronted with a decision to defend himself. They may hear a contention that Slager was out for immediate revenge when he executed the man who defied arrest, as prosecutors have said in the past. Members of area communities are bound to watch from afar, ready to demonstrate if their idea of justice isn't served.
The video that so vividly depicted Scott's death has been seen by many worldwide, but experts say the case isn't as simple as it appears in the short clip.
"At first glance, it seems like a very straightforward case," said Cara Rabe-Hemp, a criminal justice professor at Illinois State University who has followed the case. "I also thought that of the Rodney King footage. It’s definitely not a slam dunk."
A California jury declined to convict the Los Angeles police officers charged in King's 1991 beating that similarly was captured on video. Riots followed.
Slager's case too is racially charged. Slager is white; Scott black. The judge now presiding over Slager's case is black, while the prosecutors and most of the defense attorneys are white.
To prepare for what's in store in the coming weeks, here are some basics about the trial:
Question: How long will the trial last?
Answer: Jury selection starts at 8:30 a.m. Monday, and it could last a week. Testimony will follow and could stretch for two weeks, running from about 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Q: Where is the trial?
A: At the Charleston County Judicial Center, 100 Broad St., Charleston.
Q: Who is the judge and the primary attorneys for each side?
A: Circuit Judge Clifton Newman is presiding. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and Chief Deputy Solicitor Bruce DuRant will lead the prosecution. Andy Savage and Donald McCune are heading the defense.
Q: What are the basic facts?
A: Slager, a patrol officer in a part of North Charleston plagued by violence, stopped Scott's 1990 Mercedes-Benz for a broken brake light April 4, 2015. Scott pulled into an Advance Auto Parts parking lot at Remount and Craig roads. He didn't have paperwork for the car he said he planned to buy, and he answered the officer's questions inconsistently. Meanwhile, his passenger, Pierre Fulton, stared ahead and said nothing. Slager returned to his cruiser to check Scott's identification when the driver got out and ran. Slager chased him and used a Taser to shock him in the back. A struggle ensued on the ground. A witness, Feidin Santana, started filming the confrontation with a cellphone. Once the men were back on their feet, Slager grabbed Scott's arm, and the Taser fell to the ground but it's unclear if the officer knew that. Scott turned and started running away as Slager pulled his .45-caliber Glock pistol and fired eight times. Five bullets hit Scott from behind. Slager then handcuffed Scott and picked up the Taser, dropping it near Scott's body only to return it to its holster a short time later. Santana's video was made public three days later, and Slager was arrested on a murder charge within an hour.
Q: What is the prosecution's argument?
A: Slager acted as a "firing squad," Wilson has said. Santana's video doesn't show Scott coming at Slager when he fired, as he contended during questioning. Instead, it shows Scott trying to escape when he got shot in the back.
Q: What is the defense argument?
A: Scott had signs of cocaine and alcohol in his blood, explaining his erratic behavior. Other evidence supports Slager's claim that he fired in self-defense. Scott's DNA was found on the Taser, indicating that he had control of it at some point. Slager said Scott had grabbed it and tried to use it against him. Two marks on the officer's shirt also are consistent with a Taser's prongs, indicating Scott might have jabbed it into Slager, whose protective vest would have stopped any electric shock. The defense will implore jurors to judge Slager not in hindsight, but in the moment he decided to defend himself.
Q: Will Slager be sent back to jail once the trial begins?
A: It's possible. Slager has been free on $500,000 bail since January. But in South Carolina, bail is typically revoked at the start of a trial in a felony case. Slager's attorneys could ask the judge to continue his bail arrangement through the proceeding, keeping him out of jail.
Q: How many jurors are there?
A: From the 600 Charleston County residents summoned for jury duty, 12 primary jurors and several alternates will be chosen. At least 188 prospective jurors are expected to show up Monday at the courthouse. Many from the 600-member pool already have been excused. Some haven't responded to summonses.
Q: Will the jury visit the shooting scene?
A: Possibly. The defense has asked the judge to allow for it so jurors can "fully appreciate what occurred" if it's deemed appropriate during the trial. Case law allows for the move if it's "necessary to a just decision," the defense said in a filing.
Q: Can members of the public attend the trial?
A: Space in the 70-seat courtroom is limited. Some spots are dedicated to the news media, and some to the families of the victim and the defendant. Any leftover will be available to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis, Charleston County spokesman Shawn Smetana said. An overflow room with "plenty of seating for the public," Smetana said, will feature screens with a live video feed from the main courtroom. Electronics, including cellphones, must be turned off in both rooms.
Q: What's the parking situation for people who want to go?
A: It's tight. County parking garages are closed to the public because of the trial and Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof's trial, which starts in federal court a week into Slager's proceeding.
Q: Will there be live video outside the courthouse?
A: Yes. Through the news media, the public will be able to see the same video feed from the overflow courtroom. With $61,000 from a federal grant, the county installed a system of microphones and a single video camera mounted on a courtroom wall. CNN was designated to tap into the feed so it can be distributed to other media outlets, many of which will show the trial online. The camera will provide a static view of witnesses, the judge, the defense and prosecution tables, and a TV screen showing evidence exhibits.
Q: What press coverage is allowed?
A: The jury will notice very little media presence. Local news outlets, including The Post and Courier, have seating in the courtroom while national organizations will rotate for a spot during the trial. But none can wear insignia identifying their outlets. A newspaper photographer will be allowed to take still pictures daily, but only for the first 15 minutes of proceedings. No other media cameras are allowed.
Q: Will jurors have options for a conviction besides the murder charge?
A: Likely, but that is something determined by the judge and argued by attorneys during the trial when the jury isn't present. Typically in murder cases, especially in ones where self-defense is argued, manslaughter is provided as an option. If the jury cannot first unanimously agree to guilt on the murder charge, they would turn to the manslaughter count.
Q: What are the possible outcomes?
A: To acquit Slager, every juror must agree that he's not guilty of all the charges he faces. To convict him, each panel member must agree that he's guilty of one of the charges.
Q: If Slager is convicted, when would he be sentenced?
A: Trials that end in guilty verdicts in South Carolina typically move immediately into sentencing. The presiding judge would hear aggravating and mitigating arguments from both sides, listen to any pleas from family members and decide on a penalty. Sometimes, though, a judge will order a pre-sentencing report to be compiled by state officials for use at a later sentencing hearing.
Q: If he's acquitted, can federal authorities prosecute him?
A: Yes. Slager is already charged in federal court with lying, violating Scott's civil rights and using a firearm in the alleged crime. A federal judge put that case on hold until the state's proceeding is over.