A judge on Tuesday vacated his order to seal future filings in Michael Slager's murder case after The Post and Courier raised concerns about the move.
Circuit Judge Clifton Newman made the demand of attorneys last week, when he also ejected most members of the public from a portion of a hearing when prosecutors were slated to testify.
Citing constitutional provisions for open court proceedings and records, an attorney for the newspaper on Monday proposed to Newman that he vacate the order to seal the documents and his decision to close the proceeding.
The judge on Tuesday said he decided to vacate the records sealing "upon consideration of the applicable First Amendment and related rights and giving fair consideration to the constitutional rights of the parties."
He also set a hearing for noon Friday to address other concerns about openness of the proceedings.
Slager's trial in the shooting death of Walter Scott is set to begin Monday with jury selection, bringing national attention to the courthouse in downtown Charleston.
Slager, 34, was a North Charleston police officer in April 2015 when he pulled over Scott, 50, for a broken brake light. Scott soon ran from his car, and the officer used a Taser in a bid to subdue him. A struggle followed, and Slager said Scott wrested the Taser from him. Fearing the device would be used against him, Slager said, he resorted to his pistol.
A bystander's video of the end of the confrontation shows Slager drawing his gun as Scott turns away. The Taser, meanwhile, falls to the ground, and Slager opens fire, hitting Scott five times.
The footage brought worldwide scrutiny that's expected to persist through the trial, prompting the defense team's concerns over picking a fair jury for the proceeding.
When attorneys on the case met with Newman late last week for a public hearing on unresolved motions before the trial, the judge mentioned the dilemma of shielding jurors from outside influences. He raised the possibility of sequestration, or confining the jury to a hotel instead of allowing the panel to go home at the end of the day.
In the same portion of the proceeding, Newman ordered the attorneys to file further motions under seal, but he gave no reasons. South Carolina court rules call for a thorough explanation before the public is blocked from accessing such records. In vacating that order Tuesday, he said he had issued it "in preparation for jury selection."
The judge last week also allowed only Scott's family and investigators to stay when 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, an elected official, testified about whether state agents used deception in obtaining an interview with Slager shortly before his arrest three days after the shooting. The Post and Courier objected, but Newman would not hear the newspaper's concerns or give an explanation for shutting the courtroom.
Attorney Jay Bender of Columbia, who represents the newspaper, said legal precedent in the state calls for a judge to weigh various interests before closing a hearing. The South Carolina and U.S. constitutions, he said, favor openness.
When it's determined later that a closed hearing should have been open, Bender said a judge should release a transcript of the proceedings that the public missed. A transcript might be a topic that Newman takes up when the case reconvenes Friday. The judge was supposed to be on vacation that day, but the S.C. Supreme Court on Monday ordered that he return for the proceeding that any member of the public can attend.