Fellow officers thought Michael Slager had opened fire on Walter Scott at close range to fend off an attack, they testified Monday in Slager’s murder trial.
But a cellphone video showed Scott running away when Slager pulled the trigger eight times. Five bullets hit Scott from behind.
Prosecutors contend that the footage contradicts the account Slager gave to other policemen in the moments after the April 4, 2015, killing. But several of the officers who took the witness stand on the third day of testimony in Slager’s trial stressed that they believed Slager had been in a rough-and-tumble fight, apparent from his disheveled clothing, scrapes and cuts.
Heated questioning from defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes elicited the officers’ interpretations of the video and their opinions of whether an officer in Slager's situation would have been justified by shooting Scott. One supervisor contradicted himself, once saying that Scott’s flight showed waning resistance and next that Scott’s behavior posed a lingering threat.
While little new information was revealed Monday — two of the three officers had testified in a pretrial hearing — the proceeding for the first time revealed their take on the shooting that captured the world’s attention. Most seemed to stand by Slager, who faces between 30 years and life in prison if convicted of murder.
One of the prosecution witnesses, Sgt. James Gann, was supervising Slager's squad that day.
“Was he trained by the North Charleston Police Department to shoot someone in the back while he’s running away?” Chief Deputy Solicitor Bruce DuRant asked him.
“No, sir,” Gann answered. But the questioning continued.
“Would you agree that running away is de-escalating?” the prosecutor asked.
Gann sighed twice and asked DuRant to ask the question again. He sighed a third time.
“Through the video,” Gann answered, “I would say (Scott) was “de-escalating.”
The defense also laid more of the groundwork for its own case through cross-examination of the witnesses.
In response to lead defense attorney Andy Savage’s questions, North Charleston Lt. Dan Bowman said officers “were encouraged” to make traffic stops and field interviews of pedestrians as a way to fight violent crime. Savage intends to present such testimony to account for his client's thoughts on that day.
“That’s what was considered community policing in North Charleston?” Savage said.
“That’s correct,” Bowman answered.
In September, a Post and Courier investigation, “Watched,” revealed that North Charleston and other police agencies nationwide have amassed huge databases of personal information from the field interviews that officers complete. Critics contend that the push for such records has driven officers into unnecessary confrontations. North Charleston has amassed 34,000 such entries since 2009.
Traffic stops in the city also have come under scrutiny. Black drivers are most often stopped in North Charleston, though the city's population is 47 percent black. The stops have waned, though, since Scott’s death: About 26,000 people were pulled over in the nine months after the shooting, compared with 54,000 in the same period the year before.
'Trying to protect his life'
Slager stopped Scott's car last year for a broken brake light, and Scott ran away. The officer chased him, getting into a struggle in which Slager said Scott grabbed his Taser. A bystander started filming as the men returned to their feet. The Taser fell behind Slager as the officer pulled his .45-caliber pistol. Scott had turned away before the gunfire resounded.
During the struggle, Slager had radioed his patrol partner, officer Clarence Habersham, to hurry up. Habersham testified Monday that his adrenaline started pumping when he heard Slager's call for help. It was apparent, he testified, that Slager “was in a physical altercation.”
Habersham was the first backup officer to show up, and he became the focus of scrutiny in the shooting's aftermath. Critics said he didn’t give Scott adequate care and didn’t say anything in a police report to challenge Slager’s version of what happened. But Habersham insisted in testimony that he never saw Slager drop a Taser near Scott’s body — what prosecutors said was the officer’s initial bid to stage the scene. Slager soon picked up the device.
Habersham, who recently left the Police Department for a job at a clothing manufacturer, testified that he had zeroed in on helping Scott. He grabbed his first aid kit, and he and another officer did CPR on Scott, they said Monday.
Attorneys did not goad Habersham into expressing views about the shooting. Slager was known to him, he said, as a “proactive … professional” policeman.
But that comment launched prosecutors into a look at Slager's past. They noted that Slager had activated his Taser about 12 times in five years, compared with Habersham's three times over a nine-year career.
Presiding Circuit Judge Clifton Newman allowed jurors to hear that element of Slager's history, while he has narrowed the opportunities for the defense to bring up Scott's past. Background on both the defendant and the victim are typically restricted in criminal trials.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors also have been given leeway in prefacing their questions with statements. Both sides have accused the other of testifying for the witnesses. Newman warned them to avoid that Monday.
But it continued. Habersham was questioned about his radio communications as he responded to help Slager.
“Slager was in a fight on the ground trying to protect his life," Savage said, "when you made that call?”
'Very close together'
Some jurors’ heads moved from side to side, their gaze swiveling from the attorneys to the witnesses when each spoke. Some eyes stayed glued on the witnesses. Others often looked at Scott's family in the crowd.
Most of the attorneys' points — even small ones — were contested. Prosecutors pointed to Slager's shirt that remained tucked in as evidence that he had not been in a fight. The defense produced a photograph of the strap running down Slager's leg that kept his shirttails tucked in.
Slager was otherwise “disheveled” when Bowman saw him at the scene, the lieutenant testified. Slager’s uniform was dusty and dirty, and Bowman told the defense that “there’s no question” the officer had been in a fight on the ground.
But, the prosecution asked, did Slager say he had been punched? No. Kicked? No. Scratched? No. Tased? No. Did Scott get on top of him? No.
At least four officers, including Gann and Bowman, heard Slager’s account of the shooting. More are expected to testify in the coming days.
Gann saw some of the most heated questioning Monday. He repeated that Slager and Scott had been fighting over the Taser. “My understanding was that Mr. Scott had the Taser, and they were very close together … within 3 to 4 feet” when Slager fired, he said.
Gann paused when he was pressed on general questions about his training, about when it’s right to fire at someone.
Raising his voice, the otherwise soft-spoken Savage asked if Scott had been frisked for weapons before the confrontation with Slager. He had not. For the first time in the trial, Savage posed the possibility that Slager thought Scott was armed.
“The only rational interpretation (for Scott’s irrational behavior) … was that he had something else to offer, such as a lethal weapon?” Savage asked Gann.
Prosecutors objected to the question, and the judge dubbed the lawyer's comment “improper.”
Muttering that prosecutors had used similar questions with Gann, Savage tried again, asking whether Scott’s actions before the shooting showed any signs of de-escalation.
“I would have to say no,” Gann said.