A state investigator who examined the scene where Walter Scott died said Tuesday that an early police account of the shooting and the wounds in Scott’s back didn’t line up.
The analysis from Almon Brown, once a special agent at the State Law Enforcement Division, came during the fourth day of testimony in former North Charleston patrolman Michael Slager’s murder trial. The day was full of such technical testimony, and at least one juror closed her eyes, drawing a judge’s warning.
Brown testified that he first learned Slager’s version of the shooting from a SLED captain. Slager told officials that he had fought with Scott, who wrested control of his Taser and pointed it at him. The officer then shot Scott.
Scott fell dead yards from where Slager had opened fire. His body lay in an anthill, and when Brown and a deputy coroner later turned it over, they saw five wounds stretching from Scott’s ear down his right side.
“Given the information we had from the initial briefing,” Brown testified for the prosecution, “it just didn’t seem correct.”
But Slager’s lawyer used cross-examination Tuesday to start poking holes in a state investigation that failed to do key tests to disprove the officer’s self-defense story and failed to fill in the blanks in a bystander's video of the shooting, the defense contended.
The proceeding unfolded despite four bomb threats Tuesday against the courthouse complex in downtown Charleston. The building was not evacuated.
Local police officials and the FBI are on alert because of Slager’s trial and one for Dylann Roof that had been scheduled to start in federal court across the street. A downtown hotel on Tuesday also received the latest letter mailed to area businesses, threatening racially motivated violence. A statue in Marion Square of former Gov. Wade Hampton, a known slaveholder, was vandalized Tuesday morning with permanent marker, officials added.
The response to Scott’s death has been with discussions of race as it came during an examination of police-involved deaths of black people.
Slager, 34, who is white, was arrested three days later after the video capturing the death of Scott, a black man, surfaced. It briefly showed some sort of confrontation with both men on the ground. After they stood, Scott turned as Slager drew his .45-caliber pistol and opened fire as Scott, 50, ran away.
SLED’s chief, Mark Keel, pointed out in a statement shortly after Slager’s jailing that agents at the scene had noticed inconsistencies between the initial story and forensic evidence. Specifics were offered publicly for the first time Tuesday through Brown’s testimony.
But Brown no longer works at SLED. He was fired in August 2015 over Facebook comments he made about an unspecified homicide case. The Post and Courier sought more details through an open-records request, but SLED did not provide the former agent’s personnel file before Slager's trial.
Though important to the state’s case, testimony from three crime-scene investigators grew tedious at times Tuesday. Brown spent more than four hours discussing the pieces of evidence he found and where he found them.
An alternate juror, a middle-age woman sitting in the back row, occasionally closed her eyes. A fellow juror once nudged her as she appeared to nod off. Heavy eyelids were seen on spectators and members of the news media, too.
Alerted to the problem, Circuit Judge Clifton Newman said that some shuteye could mean the juror is simply “pondering or being pensive” about testimony. But it also could be reason for removal.
“We trust that you all will do whatever is necessary to stay alert, attentive and also give the appearance of being alert and attentive,” the judge said, not addressing anyone in particular.
The juror later rocked in her chair as photographs of Scott’s body flashed on a large screen. Newman allowed most of the pictures to be shown, though defense attorney Andy Savage argued that they would prejudice jurors against his client.
Observers in the courtroom could not see most of the images. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson had proposed earlier to “not broadcast (the pictures) all over the world” by using only the screen closest to the jury.
Slager sat behind the defense table and surveyed the jurors. They inspected the photos, craning their necks and squinting their eyes. An older man chewed gum.
They saw Scott’s bloodied back. The SLED agent described his wounds: to the right ear, the upper right shoulder, the right side of the back, the lower back above the waist and the right buttocks. All five bullets hit a short distance to the right of Scott’s midline, the imaginary divider down the middle of his side.
“Did the location of the wounds cause you any concern based upon your briefing?” Chief Deputy Solicitor Bruce DuRant asked Brown.
“Yes, sir,” he answered.
SLED experts later found more evidence they said indicated Scott was shot from a distance. “Stippling” is the burn pattern caused by hot gunpowder spewed from a firearm at close range — no more than 36 inches away, Brown said. The experts found none on Scott.
While Brown was in charge of collecting the evidence for SLED, which led the probe into Scott's death, North Charleston investigators also got involved. Officer Jackie Ong and former Sgt. Scott Wyant photographed Slager and the scene.
Wyant documented the injuries Slager said he had suffered in a fight with Scott. Shown to the jury, his photos captured dirt marks, scrapes and small cuts on the officer’s knees, hands, fingers and legs. He came across blood smears on Slager’s uniform, indicating the officer might have “wiped (his wounds) off on his clothes.”
All of the injuries seemed minor and were sometimes hard to discern from the pictures, though the defense later noted that one had bled for more than three hours. Savage also asked Wyant whether investigators considered that Slager had cleaned up before he was photographed “because the evidence that counts is the evidence that existed at the time of the incident.”
Wyant said he also had not noticed any dirt in Slager’s shirt pocket or compared it with the distinctive gravel street at the scene — what witnesses during the trial have called “the yellow brick road.”
“It could indicate it possibly could have come from some sort of … a tussle,” Wyant said.
It was Brown’s testimony, though, that consumed most of the day. He was the 16th witness called by the prosecution. And he wasn't done by the time court ended early for the day because of the elections.
While the prosecution focused on what Brown and SLED did with the evidence they gathered, the defense faulted the agency for what was not done.
Certain tests would have helped the authorities decide whether Slager was telling the truth in saying Scott posed a threat to him, the defense contended. Savage noted that SLED agents had not looked for fingerprints on the Taser alleged to have been the focus of a struggle with Scott. They didn't take Slager's boots or his belt, and at first, they didn't examine the tiny marks on his uniform that the defense thinks were caused by the officer's own Taser being used against him.
Savage then turned to the state's most damning piece of evidence — the bystander's video — and said in a question to Brown that the footage "didn’t properly record" the whole confrontation.
“This jury got incomplete information because the state of South Carolina failed to do its job?" Savage said, an inquisitive inflection in his voice.
"That’s a question?" Brown said.
After Savage asked whether SLED had given "press conference after press conference ... without the factual findings," the prosecution objected, and the judge told the jurors they could go home for the day.