The focus of efforts to prosecute the North Charleston policeman who shot Walter Scott shifted Tuesday to federal court after a judge delayed his retrial in a state murder case.
The next jury to consider Michael Slager's fate could gather this spring in U.S. District Court, across the street from where 12 local residents last month could not agree on whether he committed a crime when he killed Scott.
Slager's second murder trial had been set for March 1, but his defense team successfully challenged that date, arguing that witnesses would not be available and that it could conflict with the federal case that had been scheduled sooner.
Circuit Judge Clifton Newman's decision to push the state trial to Aug. 28 gave new life to the civil rights case against Slager that had been put on hold. It's set to begin May 1.
"We don't want to do anything to disrupt the federal case or cause an issue on appeal. That's always a problem," 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said after a hearing in downtown Charleston. "We'd rather get it right than get it fast."
President Donald Trump's administration has been noncommittal on whether it would support Slager's continued prosecution, sparking skepticism over whether the federal trial would go on as planned. Wilson cited that lingering concern Tuesday when she urged Newman to revisit the scheduling if anything fell through.
Slager, 35, would face the same maximum lifetime prison term if he were convicted of the most serious charge in either case.
In federal court, he is charged with violating Scott's rights under the color of law, lying to investigators and using a firearm in a violent crime. Judge David Norton is overseeing the case.
Defense attorney Andy Savage said he has been preparing since the state mistrial to adjust the defense case to meet the federal allegations.
Defending the case in state or federal court is a challenge, he said, especially with seemingly “unlimited” government resources dedicated to putting Slager in prison. But Savage said his team recently discovered new information that could explain Scott’s reasons for resisting Slager’s attempts to arrest him.
“We are optimistic that this recent discovery will finally lead to finding justice for Mr. Slager in either jurisdiction,” he said. “It looks like our next opportunity will be in federal court, and we look forward to it.”
Some of the deadlocked jurors had sided with the defense team's narrative, determining that Slager legally shot Scott in self-defense. Others sought his conviction on a lesser charge, manslaughter, and one juror said in an interview that both charges were too "harsh" for Slager's actions in the April 4, 2015, shooting.
The patrolman stopped Scott, 50, for a broken brake light. After Scott ran, Slager tried to subdue him with a Taser. But the two fought over the stun gun, Slager said. The officer said Scott grabbed the device and turned it against him, drawing his gunfire. A bystander's video showed Scott running away as Slager fired eight times.
In federal court, a jury would face some of the same questions about whether the shooting was justified, but the civil rights charge is geared toward excessive force by police officers.
Wilson, the chief state prosecutor, said she had been surprised by the chance that federal authorities might not continue to prosecute Slager under Trump's tenure. That prospect first arose shortly after the election when future Vice President Mike Pence said the case's fate would be up to the new attorney general.
"I don't know if that's a realistic possibility, but it's been laid out there," Wilson said. "So it's something we have to consider."
Newman said he would revisit the scheduling issue if the federal case "does not go forward ... for whatever reason."
After the first trial ended with Newman's mistrial ruling, Scott's family members stood in front of news reporters and spoke of their faith in God and the system to deliver justice, eventually. Through Wilson, they continued Tuesday to express that sentiment.
"They're patient people," she said. "They understand the need to get it right."