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How Walter Scott's death continues to reverberate 5 years later for two SC families

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Anthony Scott 1.jpg

Anthony Scott visits the site off Remount Road in North Charleston where his brother, Walter, was fatally shot by then-North Charleston police officer Michael Slager on April 4, 2015. While at the site on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, Anthony said he hadn't been back in years. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

He hasn't been here in years.

On this day, it is quiet — no more than a neighborhood cut-through squeezed between a muffler shop, an oil change center and a pawnshop. Faded yellow paint clings, in patches, to the asphalt.  

Dressed in a camel-colored jacket, black slacks and black leather shoes, Anthony Scott looks out from behind tortoise shell sunglasses.

This is where his brother died. 

His younger brother, Walter, was shot by then-North Charleston police officer Michael Slager on this spot, a little after 9:30 a.m. on April 4, 2015.

Walter Scott (copy)

Walter Scott. File/Staff

"It was an awful thing," Anthony said. "It’s just something that’s never going to go away."

One of a series of police shootings that claimed the lives of unarmed black men across the United States, Walter Scott’s death is etched into the history of the South Carolina Lowcountry, where it has left a mark on the community as a whole and the two families involved.

The shooting sparked protests and drew a national spotlight to a city that had long struggled with allegations of discriminatory policing practices. For many African Americans, it was a stark example of something they'd been saying for years: Black communities around the country were being victimized by law enforcement.   

The Scott family was forever changed by the shooting. Anthony said he's learned how to deal with what happened. He is working with activist groups to push for further reforms at the North Charleston Police Department he hopes will prevent what happened to his brother from happening again. 

Meanwhile, Slager is locked up at a federal prison in Colorado, where he is scheduled to be released in 2034. He did not respond to questions sent to him in a letter from The Post and Courier. But his former attorney, Andy Savage, and ex-wife, Jamie, contend he was treated unfairly and his sentencing was politically motivated. 

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Defense attorney Andy Savage and wife Cheryl Savage discuss evidence in 2020. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A day of reckoning

Slager was patrolling North Charleston's Remount Road on that hazy Saturday morning.

A busy thoroughfare that runs a little over 3 miles from end to end, Remount lies on the border of North Charleston and Hanahan. It is walled off by two freeways. Burgeoning Latino businesses, churches and corner stores dot the street and tractor-trailers rumble by on their way to the road's eastern terminus, a shipping terminal on the Cooper River. Beset by years of blight, the area was beginning to turn around, but the corridor still struggled with crime.

The officer noticed a 1990 Mercedes-Benz with a broken taillight. He turned on his flashing blue lights and the two vehicles pulled over into the parking lot of an auto parts store on Remount and Craig roads.

His department had been working for years to tamp down crime. They employed "pretext stops" in which officers looked for small violations as opportunities to pull over drivers and stop pedestrians in hopes of nabbing hardened criminals and taking guns and drugs off the streets.

It worked, for a time.

But crime was on the rise again. Homicides in North Charleston had increased nearly 167 percent between 2010 and 2014, from nine slayings to 24. After years of aggressive stops, black residents felt harassed.

Anthony warned his brother in the days before the shooting. "I told him that was a risk, you need to make sure everything’s correct on that car," he said. "It would make you be profiled."

Walter had been stopped at least twice before in the city. There also was a warrant out for his arrest, as he'd failed to pay child support. But Slager never saw it that day.

After the pair pulled into the parking lot, the 50-year-old man stumbled over the officer's questions. 

Scott opened his car door and ran as the officer checked his identification. Slager chased after him, using a Taser in a bid to gain control.

"Slager, where you at now?" another officer asked over the radio. He responded with directions.

They got into a struggle, which is when Slager said Scott grabbed the stun gun and turned it on him.

A little over 10 seconds later, bystander Feidin Santana took out his phone and started recording a video that would shock the country.

Scott got up off the ground and ran again. Taser wires dangled between them. The weapon fell and bounced several times.

Slager unholstered his pistol and aimed. He fired eight times, hitting Scott with five bullets. 

Scott fell to the ground near a tree. He’d been shot in the back.

"Shots fired. Subject is down. He grabbed my Taser," Slager said over his radio.

Afterward, the officer picked up the stun gun and dropped it near Scott's lifeless body before fetching it again within seconds. 

Prosecutors would later say they saw this as evidence that Slager had tried to stage the scene — a possible indicator of malice or evil intent and a requirement for murder.

Two families

Jamie Slager was sitting on the floor when she got the call.

It was her husband. He'd been in a shooting.

Thoughts raced through Jamie's mind: Was he all right? Was he hurt? Was he coming home? 

"I was sitting with my older son," she said, speaking recently with The Post and Courier. "I was pregnant and I was getting everything ready for the baby to come. ... I turned to my son and I said something and then I just started crying. Stuff is going to be different. You just have a feeling."

Shortly after the shooting, Walter's son, named Walter Lamar, raced to the scene. 

His grandmother, Judy, had been on the phone with Walter when he was pulled over, Anthony said recently, recalling the morning of the shooting. When the phone disconnected, she called her grandson.

And she called Anthony, as well. The family was trying to figure out what happened. They wondered if Walter was hurt. 

"I thought my brother had gotten Tased and he was at the hospital," Anthony said. "When I arrived on the scene, my nephew told me that he was gone." 

For these families, the shock was immediate, but no one could predict the coming journey of conflict and heartbreak.

Jamie and Michael Slager were married about five years before the shooting and were expecting their first child together. Isaac Slager would be born that May as his father sat in a jail cell. 

Jamie had two children from a previous marriage and Michael was a dedicated stepfather. When her older son wanted to wear a tuxedo to a middle school dance, Michael picked up two shifts of off-duty work to pay for the formal wear.

She had tubal ligation some years before, so when the couple decided to try for a child they knew in-vitro fertilization was the only option. 

Jamie was working, but days away from going on maternity leave. She worried a little. Her older son was born five weeks early and they were taking precautions to prevent early labor.

Michael loved his job, she said. Sometimes he'd ask his wife to make extra sandwiches so he could pass a few to homeless people he came across on his shifts. There was one man who liked spicy cheese and the officer made sure his wife bought the cheese especially for him. "He would be excited," she said. "He didn’t go out there to try to hurt people. He was positive."

In the days that followed, police declared it a traffic stop gone wrong and said Scott gained control of the officer’s Taser during the ground struggle and tried to use it against Slager.

But Scott’s family expressed disbelief that a man they knew as a gentle, good and honest person would ever try and harm anyone, including a police officer.

Walter, the second of three brothers, had a way of making people laugh. He was always smiling. Many called him their best friend. 

He'd proposed the week before to Charlotte, his girlfriend of five years. He dreamed of renting an RV, loading up his four children and Charlotte and her two daughters, and taking them to Walt Disney World. 

Though he'd been jailed in the past for failing to pay child support, Walter worked to be a better father and a better man. 

"Walter was so incredible, being that thoughtful guy he was," his brother Anthony, said on a mid-March afternoon as he recalled his brother and the shooting. "He was the glue. When there was a problem or disagreement, he was the one that would smooth it out."

A contested case

In the days after the shooting, Slager said through an attorney that Scott wrested the Taser from him and came at him with the stun gun. The officer fired his pistol in fear for his life, according to the statement. 

But word leaked out about a bystander's cell phone video, a recording that disproved the official account. 

Santana's video emerged showing Slager shooting as Scott ran away. The officer's attorney at the time dropped him.

The State Law Enforcement Division said they'd be charging the patrolman with murder. The video, they said, showed Slager lied to investigators and suggested the officer made a conscious decision to shoot Scott, even though the man was running away.

Eddie Driggers, North Charleston's police chief at the time, said he felt physically ill after seeing the footage.  

Mayor Keith Summey said in a news conference after the officer's arrest that Slager had made a "bad decision."

"When you’re wrong, you’re wrong," Summey said. 

There were calls for justice. Officers left the North Charleston department in droves. City officials called on the Justice Department to come in and reform the troubled police force.

The city threatened to boil over.

And the Scott family struggled to keep their faith. They called on the community to refrain from violence.

"It needs to be known across America what’s going on," Anthony Scott said shortly after the video's release. "This is what I hope it serves to the world. I hope they use better judgment and have better training. Oh my God, it’s painful. I mean to see your brother get gunned down that way."

He and his youngest surviving brother, Rodney, said they hoped for peace in the community and in the world, even after people saw Santana's video.

"We don’t advocate violence, we advocate change," Anthony said. 

Jamie Slager, meanwhile, reached out to Savage. The veteran attorney had a long history of representing lawmen facing legal trouble. 

He'd seen Santana's video the night before and, like many, he was shocked. Turning from the TV to his wife, he said, "Oh my God."

But after speaking to the officer's wife, the way he viewed the footage started to change. The more Savage and his team investigated, the more they believed Slager made a reasonable decision under immense pressure.

It became his mission to make others believe that.

"The atmosphere at the time was very toxic," Savage said on a rainy morning in March.

Officers who’d killed unarmed black men had escaped prosecution elsewhere in the nation and Savage feared the justice system would come down hard on his client. He and his team argued that while Slager pulled the trigger, the shooting was rooted in Scott’s aggressive actions and in institutional incompetence by the North Charleston Police Department.

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Defense attorney Andy Savage and wife Cheryl Savage discuss evidence in the Michale Slager case Wednesday, March 4, 2020 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Just two months after Walter Scott's death, the Lowcountry was dealt a second blow: The murder of nine black worshipers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church by an avowed white supremacist.

The two incidents locked a world spotlight on the Charleston area.

Slager's trial

Months passed, then a year. In late 2016, Slager and Savage prepared for trial in state court.

At the same time, across Broad Street at Charleston’s Four Corners of Law, Dylann Roof was set to face trial in federal court for the slayings of the Emanuel Nine.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson knew the Slager case would be difficult. 

For the prosecutor, it was not possible to see the video and not know the shooting was wrong, but fitting the facts under South Carolina's existing laws was a challenge.

"South Carolina’s law is a mess when it comes to officers’ use of force cases and I knew the jury would have a hard time," Wilson said. "That coupled with my review of cases across the country let me know that a guilty verdict would be out of the ordinary."

But, in this case, there was simply too much evidence against the former officer for him to be found not guilty, she said.

So even when the jury reached an impasse and Circuit Judge Clifton Newman declared a mistrial, Wilson remained confident prosecutors would eventually win a conviction against Slager. 

"I was never worried that justice would not be served," she said. "I was concerned about how long it would take us to get there and the toll that time would take on the Scott family, our community and law enforcement."

The Scott family, meanwhile, faced a battery of reporters outside the courthouse. Judy Scott stepped to a podium.

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Walter Scott's mother, Judy, speaks to media gathered outside the courthouse  in 2017. File/Staff

"I would like to say that, to all of you, today, I’m not sad. He will get his just reward and we have the federal trial and another trial to go. I’m just waiting on the Lord."

Standing on a recent afternoon near the spot where his brother died, Anthony Scott watched a video of his mother speaking on the day of the mistrial. He inhaled sharply and let out a shuddering sigh. His eyes welled up. He wiped a tear from his left cheek.

"When she spoke that day, she was just so powerful," Scott said. "After that, we were good. We no longer needed to wonder or question whether we were going to get justice."

The federal trial was set to begin in Charleston on May 15, 2016. But a week before the jury was to be selected, Slager reached an agreement with federal prosecutors.

He’d plead guilty to one count of violating Scott’s civil rights in exchange for the remaining federal charges and state charges being dropped.

Slager, then 35, hugged his lead attorney after entering the plea. From a front-row bench, his mother and wife watched as authorities handcuffed Slager and led him from the packed courtroom.

But the case wasn’t over.

U.S. District Judge David Norton still had to sentence Slager and determine whether the underlying crime was murder or manslaughter.

Savage felt confident that Norton would be lenient. The attorney worked hard to show mitigating circumstances.

No one disputed that Slager killed Scott, but Savage insisted that the foot pursuit and struggle on the ground should change people’s perception of the shooting.

And the message from state jurors during the mistrial was clear, the attorney said. All 12 had ruled out murder and were undecided on whether the former officer committed manslaughter.

A probation officer who prepared a sentencing recommendation agreed with the manslaughter finding, suggesting more than a decade in prison. Savage thought that was too much and hoped Norton would agree. 

Savage had known the judge for a long time. A portrait of Norton hung in Savage's law office on Prioleau Street in downtown Charleston. The attorney was godfather to the judge’s daughter. 

Given the evidence Savage had compiled, the attorney believed his friend would be lenient and hand down a sentence in the range of five years.

But prosecutors had a strong case for murder. Norton gave Slager 20 years in prison. He determined Slager acted with malice, a component of murder, when firing at the unarmed and fleeing man.

A bid to get the U.S Supreme Court to hear Slager's case was rejected last year. 

Savage said he still hasn’t given up on the former officer and believes that Slager never received fair treatment. He blames himself.

"It was incompetent counsel," Savage said. "I will never get over the mistake I made in recommending that Michael plead guilty in federal court. If I’d ever had an indication that (sentence) was possible, I’d never have recommended that he plead guilty. I’ll never, ‘til the day I die, get over that."

In the years since the sentencing, Savage said he’s kept in touch with Slager.

"He’s in a good place given what the sentence is," he said. "I’ve been out a few times to see him. There’s a piece of me that’s really negative with this case. He doesn’t seem to have that. His wife left him, but he’s got a son he adores and two stepchildren. He’s taking it one day at a time."

Lives changed 

After the sentencing, Jamie Slager moved to Colorado so she and Isaac could be closer to her husband, who had been transferred from jail to serve out his sentence in prison.

In the beginning, she'd take their son to see his father twice every weekend. But her husband had started to change, she said. 

Jamie and Michael had been talking about whether they should divorce. He agonized over whether it was right to have her wait 20 long years for him. 

The two divorced last year. 

"He said, 'I don't know who I am right now,'" Jamie Slager said. "We still care about each other. We do this for Isaac, but at the same time Mike's going through a lot. We have to figure it out."

Isaac still visits his father and talks to him on the phone every other day, Jamie said. 

In the past five years, Jamie said she's faced significant challenges. She was afraid after the shooting. There were threats, including a suspected arson incident in January 2016 in which investigators believe someone targeted the former officer's home.

Shortly after the shooting, Jamie sent the children away for a while.

"My kids went to my mom’s house," she said. "She was dying. I wanted them to have their time with her. I had Isaac in May. My uncle died in September and my mom died in October and then my aunt died in December. That was all family I was closest to. I couldn’t go to my uncle’s funeral or my aunt’s because of everything that was happening."

Today, she works as an orthodontic assistant and said she struggles to get by. 

The Internal Revenue Service found she and her ex-husband owed the federal government more than $300,000 in taxes, an amount tied to a settlement Michael Slager received after the Southern States Police Benevolent Association — an advocacy group that officers in several states pay dues to in exchange for the promise of legal representation — stopped funding his defense in April 2015. 

She couldn't disclose the exact amount of the settlement for fear of violating the legal agreement, but neither she nor her ex-husband received a dime because the money went toward legal expenses, Jamie said.

"I’m just taking everything day by day," she said. "We’re making the best of things. This isn’t the end of his life. He’s going to make more of his life and so am I. This is just a short period that we’re going through."

Challenges faced by Wilson, the 9th Circuit Solicitor, during the state case have led to sweeping changes in the way law enforcement use-of-force incidents are investigated in Charleston and Berkeley counties.

A plan developed by the Solicitor and unveiled in May 2019 sets a 60-day deadline for independent investigators to wrap up inquiries into use-of-force incident, and sets standards for public disclosure of information related to the investigation. It came about two years after Wilson and other chief prosecutors found themselves at odds with the SLED over who should decide and publicly explain whether charges are warranted in police shooting investigations.

"The Slager case played heavily into my (Officer-Involved Critical Incident) policy ... and the case highlighted SLED’s lack of a formal policy," Wilson said. "Trials expose many things. So few of these cases have actually gone to trial that most places do not have formal policies. SLED’s approach has always been on a 'case-by-case basis,' which is not ideal."

She and the S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination have also pushed for legislative proposals to make the law more clear in such cases, although the legislature has not yet taken action on any of the proposals.

"The Slager case highlighted the need for a state use of force statute that would protect the community and law enforcement from the hazy law," Wilson said. 

But the impact has been greatest on the Scott family.

Walter is gone. His children lost their father. Anthony and Rodney lost their brother. 

And January brought still another loss. Judy Scott died of chronic health conditions Anthony believes were exacerbated by the stress of her son's death.

"We received some sense of justice, but at the end of the day, they're gone," he said 

Walter Scott was a middle child, but he was his “momma’s baby,” as Anthony put it.

It was her strength, he said, that kept the family going during their wait for justice and it was she who kept the community from erupting into violence. 

“If it wasn’t for the plea of my mom for the city not to go haywire … we didn’t want that for the family,” he said. “She was able to initiate forgiveness. She found a way, within days, to forgive. It took me a couple of years.”

And the shooting took a toll on the oldest brother's mental health. He sought counseling. 

“I had to seek some help because I was not able to deal with it,” Anthony said.

Therapy helped him come to terms with what happened and helped him to prepare for his mother’s passing.

He said he's working with the NAACP and Charleston Area Justice Ministry to make sure North Charleston city leaders fund a racial bias audit of the police department, something that's been called for by activists and community members for several years. 

Anthony spoke at a City Council meeting in March to plead the case, but progress has been stymied by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has ground normal life around the country to a halt. 

Ryan Johnson, a spokesman for the city, referred The Post and Courier to prior statements on the issue. 

The city is consulting with the Justice Department and asking for its advice on a "holistic review of the department," said Summey, the city's mayor, in February.

Police officials declined to comment for this story.

Anthony Scott believes more is needed, and that the city has never been transparent about its dealings with minorities. 

He knows Chief Reggie Burgess has been working hard to spearhead reform efforts, but said the chief is only one man.

“He can’t do it alone,” Anthony said. “It’s going to take total cooperation from the mayor, the City Council and the community. They have to trust the cops.”

He asks the community to keep praying for his family and to speak out for accountability at City Hall and within the Police Department.

Looking out across the small cut-through on a sunny afternoon in March, Scott said not much about the area had changed. 

“I used to call this the yellow brick road,” he said, commenting on the asphalt, which had been painted a solid yellow in 2015.

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Anthony Scott visits the site off Remount Road in North Charleston where his brother, Walter, was fatally shot by then-North Charleston police officer Michael Slager on April 4, 2015. While at the site on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, Anthony said he hadn't been back in years. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

It was the first blush of spring and the trees were waking. Their leaves hinted at the dense green of Southern summer when the kudzu coils up through the chain link fence that used to wall off the road from the rest of the city.

There is no memorial. No sign of what happened here. Scott still hopes to turn the space into a park.

Five years, eight bullets, two lives, and so much more. 

For now, memory is all that remains.

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

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