Local NAACP officials on Monday called for a "fair and transparent" jury selection in the planned retrial of Michael Slager, the former North Charleston policeman who shot Walter Scott.
In Slager's first trial, the start of the selection process was closed to the public; the presiding judge had expressed concerns about prospective jurors' privacy during an attendance-taking procedure. But the potential jurors also were asked what they knew about the case and about the video of Slager shooting Scott in the back. Questions concerning exposure to a case's publicity is usually a part of the procedure that is open.
The judge lifted those restrictions after most of the jurors were questioned. Eleven white people and a black man eventually were picked as primary jurors in the case with racial undertones. Scott's shooting death came amid a national discussion about police officers' uses of force against black people. Slager is white, and Scott was black.
Since the month-long trial ended with a hung jury, the panel's indecision has been scrutinized. More openness from the beginning could have staved off some of that criticism and prevented any perception of impropriety afterward, NAACP Charleston branch President Dot Scott said Monday in a news conference.
Though "amazed and infuriated" by the deadlocked jury, she said her civil rights organization was encouraged by prosecutors' plan to try Slager again.
"But we also hope that jury selection is done in an unquestionably fair and transparent manner and in a way that the people are able to see the process," the activist, who is not related to the victim's family, said. "That wasn't the case with the hung jury that led to the mistrial, and that lack of transparency led to nagging concerns for many citizens."
Slager, 35, pulled over Walter Scott's car on April, 4, 2015, and gave chase after the 50-year-old ran. Slager tried to use a Taser to subdue Scott, but he said the motorist fought back. Scott yanked away the stun gun, Slager said. Slager said he fired his pistol after Scott came after him twice with the weapon.
An eyewitness video, though, showed the Taser bouncing on the ground as Scott turned away and started running. Scott had distanced himself from Slager by about 17 feet when the officer opened fire. Five of the eight bullets Slager fired hit Scott from behind.
Slager was arrested on a murder charge three days after the shooting, when the footage emerged publicly. He also was indicted months later on federal civil rights charges.
In state court, his trial stretched over three days of jury selection — more than half of which unfolded behind closed doors — and ended after four days of deliberations. The jury's foreman has said in interviews that several members of the panel sought to convict Slager of a lesser charge — voluntary manslaughter — while several remained undecided. One was resolute on an acquittal.
Scrutiny followed for the foreman. At the trial's halfway mark, prosecutors dropped a breach of trust charge against the foreman, who had been arrested by North Charleston police two years earlier. The public learned that after the trial; 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she had no knowledge of the action taken by an assistant in her office. She added Monday that the agreement had been made a year earlier and that the assistant solicitor didn't know the person was serving on the jury.
"No one in my office beyond the trial team is now or was then aware of the jurors’ identities," she said. "We have taken great pains to protect jurors' identities."
Wilson had objected to news media's presence when potential jurors were asked sensitive questions at one point in the process, but the prosecutor said she had not opposed the public's presence for most of the procedure. Lead defense attorney Andy Savage said he had fought for the proceeding to be open.
Bill Nettles, the former U.S. attorney for South Carolina whose office brought the civil rights charges against Slager in federal court, said in an interview Monday the jury in the state trial had done its job, despite never agreeing. Even the one juror who had refused to convict Slager seemed conflicted, Nettles noted.
But the questions posed after the trial might have been avoided if the selection process were more open, Nettles agreed.
“Any time there is an appearance of impropriety, it’s a good idea to open things up,” said Nettles, now a private attorney in Columbia after retiring in June from his role as the state's top federal prosecutor.
“I’m sure the judge had reasons that were perfectly logical, but unfortunately when things happen (such as learning of the foreman’s charge), it becomes really easy for the public to construct a narrative that’s not favorable to the criminal justice system,” he said.
Dot Scott, the NAACP official, said other, still-unconfirmed questions about the jurors have been raised. In such a widely watched case, she said, all authorities should take care to prevent "even the slightest hint of impropriety" the next time.
She noted the many other police-involved deaths nationwide that have not resulted in criminal charges or have similarly ended in hung juries. She hoped Slager's case will prove to be "an exception to that pattern."
"This is the one we would want to get right, particularly for us in this community," she said. "There's a first for everything, so we're waiting for this big first."