For a dozen times over the past month, jurors watched a video of a North Charleston police officer fatally shooting Walter Scott as the black man ran away, but they could not agree Monday whether the lawman had committed a crime.
Declaring a hung jury, a judge ordered a mistrial for Michael Slager, the patrolman who fired eight gunshots in 2.7 seconds of video footage that became a lasting image amid a national inspection of police uses of force. It brought to a close a month-long murder trial that laid bare alleged shortcomings in the training of law enforcement officers and in the way police-involved deaths are investigated in South Carolina.
The 12 jurors encountered another impasse on the fourth day of deliberations, a divide much deeper than a series of notes and letters indicated earlier in their talks. An inkling that only one member refused to vote for a conviction had buoyed hopes among prosecutors and Scott's family, but they were all but dashed Monday morning when the panel said a majority of its members remained undecided — a development that quickly shifted hope to the opposite side of the downtown Charleston courtroom.
It’s a conclusion that solicitors in South Carolina and district attorneys around the country have seen often in prosecuting police, as juries continue to struggle with bringing judgment on the law enforcement officers who grapple with the life-or-death, split-second choices that their jobs require every day.
The jury had three options for Slager: convictions for murder or voluntary manslaughter, or an acquittal. Its indecision does not end the case: 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson vowed to try Slager, 35, again, and coordinate with federal authorities, who had put their separate civil rights case against Slager on hold until the state trial’s resolution.
As the presiding judge told the jurors that the mistrial would put the case back to "Square 1, as if this trial never happened," some closed their eyes and bowed their heads. Others nodded. They did the same as Wilson and lead defense attorney Andy Savage bid them farewell. One woman sobbed and dabbed tears.
“I wish y’all could be the one,” Wilson told the jury. “But there will be another day.”
The jurors left swiftly, filing through a doorway to their parked cars, driving away from a courthouse they had visited 22 days since Halloween and leaving behind opposite sides of a dispute still searching for justice.
“It’s not over,” Slager's father, Thomas, said as he walked out, “not yet.”
Slager, who had told jurors his side of the story, met with his wife afterward at a nearby hotel. He will remain free on bail through the holidays. They discussed their plans.
He declined to comment as he and his wife sat, content but reserved.
Savage said political leaders' reaction to the mistrial typified how his client had been treated through a rush to judgment and a failure to consider the decision Slager thought was his only option for self-defense. Gov. Nikki Haley announced her hopes for another trial so Scott’s family “and all of South Carolina will hopefully receive the closure that a verdict brings.” Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said he was “deeply disappointed” by the jury’s inability to reach a verdict.
That’s the “strong headwind” that Slager has faced, Savage said, though they had held out hope for an acquittal. In thanking the jurors, Savage pointed out that Slager was charged with the most serious offense in South Carolina — what he had portrayed as an over-the-top response to the shooting. Several members of the Scott family stood up, pushed open a courtroom door and left as he spoke to the jury.
“The rule of law was broken with how (Slager) was treated in the last 18 months,” Savage said later in an interview, “but the jury upheld it despite all odds, despite the emotional and political pressure.”
A host of national news media descended on Charleston as the jury once appeared on the verge of a verdict. A lone woman sat on a bench outside the courthouse, silently hoisting a small poster that said, “Black lives matter.”
Nearby, Scott’s loved ones stepped in front of a bouquet of microphones. Many of them had leaned on their faith in God to help deliver the justice they seek. Scott’s mother, Judy Scott, continued Monday to offer her praises, even as what she had seen in the courtroom was not what she had sought.
“We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses,” she shouted. “He will get his just reward. I’m just waiting on the Lord.”
'Let this be the day'
The cool, overcast day began with expressions of the promise from the Scotts’ supporters who had seen the end of last week’s proceedings.
The Rev. Nelson Rivers, a North Charleston pastor and civil rights advocate from the National Action Network, also looked to the heavens.
"Let this be the day ... that finally in South Carolina, finally in Charleston, finally at the corners we call the Four Corners of Law,” he said, “that your law of justice will rain down … and the death of Walter Scott will finally be ruled what we know it is: murder.”
But in a deliberation room, jurors searched for answers.
When they started deliberating Wednesday, they had listened to 55 witnesses over a month's time.
They had learned that Slager stopped Scott's car on April 4, 2015, and soon began chasing the fleeing man on foot. In a confrontation, Slager told the jurors that he and Scott fought over his Taser and that Scott eventually grabbed it. He fired in self-defense, he testified, as Scott turned.
But the bystander's video showed the Taser bouncing on the ground while Scott separated himself from Slager and ran. The jurors saw that, too, and heard Slager’s acknowledgment that he hadn’t realized it at the time. Experts estimated that the policeman was about 17 feet away when he fired the first time. Five of the eight bullets hit Scott.
He was arrested on a murder charge once the video emerged publicly, but prosecutors pushed for the manslaughter count as another option for the jury. They acknowledged evidence indicating a fight before the shooting but called Slager’s reaction “egregiously violent.”
Through the notes they would send, the jurors’ questions to the judge indicated their struggle with interpreting the law on both charges and applying it to Slager.
On Friday, they were rebuffed after seeking definitions of “fear,” a common expression of self-defense, and of “passion,” a key element of manslaughter that could include fear in the wake of an attack.
At one point, the foreman said the jury was deadlocked, pointing to a single juror unwilling to consider Slager guilty of anything. But that lone juror also indicated that only some disagreed with his position.
The judge allowed the jury to press on after giving an “Allen charge,” his final plea for the minority to consider the majority’s opinion.
Upon their return Monday, the jury penned another note, this time from a new member. It listed six questions ranging from why the jurors had been given the manslaughter option, to whether a self-defense claim is different for a police officer than for other citizens.
The letter’s opening sentence, though, shook up the prevailing impression of the jury, that it was leaning toward conviction. His defense lawyers smiled when they were handed a copy and huddled with the defendant.
“The majority of the jurors are still undecided,” the note said, “and we would like help.”
Prosecutors sat behind a table, less visibly enthused about the news
'Not happy ... not sad'
The opposing attorneys argued over how Circuit Judge Clifton Newman should respond to the questions. He opted to use a hybrid of their proposals.
Most significantly, he told the jurors that fear could prompt someone to act in the heat of passion — a request of prosecutors that Newman had declined to carry out last week. The defense took exception to the move.
But the judge said the answers would help the jury reach a unanimous verdict. Either a conviction or an acquittal would have required such a vote.
“That’s what deliberations are all about: getting an undecided jury to decide,” Newman said. “It’s not clear that they are undecided on: the issue of guilty or not guilty.”
Minutes after defense lawyers aired their objections, the judge summoned everyone back. The jury had sent another note — “a final note,” he said.
“Despite the best efforts of all members,” it said, “we are unable to come to a unanimous decision.”
Newman said he had no choice but to declare a mistrial. There was no argument from any attorneys. It was the end.
The jurors filed back into the courtroom. The foreman, the only black person on the jury, sat and flipped a red scarf off his neck. The other jurors were white — a racial disproportionality that had concerned some observers.
Wilson was the first to stroll in front of them one last time. She said it had been the longest criminal trial her office has ever experienced. She was disappointed with how it ended, but she thanked the jurors. She thanked Scott’s family, and the jurors nodded.
The Charleston region had been through trying times in the past few years, and the world remarked at how it responded, Wilson said.
“The dignity and grace that this community saw started right here with the Scott family,” she said, pointing into the audience to people once hesitant to believe in the justice system. “They had a healthy skepticism … that grew to a guarded optimism, and then it grew to trust. Across the country, that’s what we have to do. I hope and pray that if some other prosecutor finds herself or himself in that position that they are blessed with a family like that … that gives them an opportunity to do their job.”
Already Monday, there was talk about setting a pretrial hearing for the murder case. The focus, though, likely will shift to a federal courthouse across the street; a federal prosecutor had been watching most of the trial. U.S. District Judge David Nortion is presiding over the case that alleges Slager violated Scott's civil right to be free from excessive force. He faces up to life in prison in the federal proceeding, too. A hearing could come as soon as next month.
But there will be time for both sides to reflect on what they learned, what they can do differently, what they can do better, Savage said.
For the defense, that hill is still just as steep, the lawyer said. He noted the state senators, the representatives and the Democratic leader of the S.C. House who had appeared in court to witness the trial.
“It gave the appearance of a political matter," he said, "as opposed to a judicial matter."
While North Charleston city leaders refused Monday to comment until the book on the case is shut, the state’s governor called for another trial “as quickly as possible.”
“I urge South Carolinians — in Charleston and across our state — to continue along the path we have walked these last two years,” Haley said in a statement, “a path of grace, faith, love and understanding.”
There were no loud demonstrations. Peace prevailed, as it had since the trial’s beginning.
“We’re not going to tear up this city,” Anthony Scott, a brother of Scott’s, said outside the courthouse. “We’re not happy, but we’re not sad.”
Some had seen a guilty verdict as a way to move on, to mend the wounds that Scott’s death had opened among black communities who felt unfairly targeted by policing practices in North Charleston. They had long aired allegations of abuse, but the video was the most significant evidence they had ever had.
While it was not enough to convince all 12 jurors that Slager had perpetrated a crime, the footage remains. A Scott family attorney, state Rep. Justin Bamberg, has said the daunting evidence had already brought change that many had hoped for.
“Oftentimes, what’s done in the dark comes to the light,” he said Monday, “And … we’ve seen the light.”
Brenda Rindge and Thad Moore contributed to this story.