Charleston's top prosecutor stepped in front of a jury Wednesday and grabbed one end of a tape measure.
A witness, one of the last to testify against former North Charleston policeman Michael Slager, stretched out the other end and walked 17 feet. That’s how far the witness said Walter Scott had run from Slager when the officer fired the first gunshot.
He walked farther and stopped near a courtroom door, holding the measuring tape to his chest.
“That’s 34 feet,” the prosecutor, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, said. “The seventh shot.”
Scott would step a few more feet before the eighth and final shot rang out.
A silence spread over the room during the demonstration. A juror’s eyes grew wide. Two others scratched their chins with their fingers.
The display that included a virtual timeline of Scott’s shooting and an animation of what led to it helped cap the state’s quest for Slager's conviction on a murder charge. Jurors saw a bystander’s video of Scott’s death two more times before prosecutors rested, pulling the trial closer to an end after 32 witnesses and nine days of testimony.
Prosecutors hoped the final presentation would create a lasting impression before Slager’s defense team started to tell its version of the story. The defense is expected to call witnesses for at least four days, stretching the trial through Thanksgiving and posing scheduling problems for some jurors. One had a trip to Haiti scheduled after the holiday. At least one was worried about getting back to work for an employer. Some wanted to know how much they would be paid. A jury foreman was likely to be picked Thursday before the court recesses for a long weekend.
On the verge of mounting their own case, Slager’s defense lawyers told the presiding judge that the prosecution had left the jury with the wrong impression.
Lead attorney Andy Savage asked the presiding judge to promptly acquit Slager before the jury can decide the former lawman’s fate. He argued that the state hadn’t shown evidence of malice, a requirement of the murder charge, and that Slager’s actions as a police officer were reasonable.
Fighting the request, Assistant Solicitor Chad Simpson noted that Slager had shot a man in the back and alleged that he later lied to investigators, indicating guilt.
Such motions for a directed verdict are rarely successful because the judge must view the evidence in a way that’s most favorable to the prosecution. Circuit Judge Clifton Newman said he thought the state had “proved beyond a reasonable doubt” that Slager had acted with malice at the time he shot Scott.
“The evidence — if believed by the jury — indicates that the defendant shot the victim … in the back while running away,” Newman said. “The jury can infer an evil intent. The jury can infer hostility. The jury can infer malice.”
Poised to call its own witnesses, Slager’s defense team is likely to make an attempt at addressing what the prosecution did not on Wednesday: a minute-long void in the final presentation when the officer said Scott grabbed his Taser and tried to use it against him, prompting him to fire in self-defense. The shaky, blurry opening moments of bystander Feidin Santana's video show some sort of a struggle on the ground, but they were left out when the footage was played.
The first defense witness summoned late Wednesday was former Houston police officer David Hallimore, who was tasked with isolating the men’s voices from that clip and from video taken by the officer’s in-car camera. Savage implied earlier in the trial that one recording captured Scott saying “expletive deleted cops” during the scuffle. But as jurors pressed headphones into their ears, exactly what was said was difficult for listeners to tell.
If he's convicted of murder, the 35-year-old Slager could get between 30 years and life behind bars.
'That's not possible'
At the close of its case, the prosecution sought to help jurors picture other moments that were not caught on video.
A dashboard camera in Slager’s car was running when he pulled over Scott's car April 4, 2015, for a broken brake light.
Scott, 50, a black man, soon ran out of the camera’s view, and the white officer chased him. Slager said that he used the Taser to bring down the suspect. Dispatch recordings captured him yelling, “Stop, or I’ll tase you.”
When he tried to handcuff Scott, Slager said they fought on the ground over his Taser. When they stood up, Scott had the stun gun and came toward Slager, the officer later told authorities. Slager fired, he said, as Scott turned away.
Santana’s video showed Scott running away when Slager starting shooting. Five of the eight bullets hit Scott from behind.
Bill Williams, the state’s second-to-last witness, was charged with rebuilding the scene on a computer and measuring key distances. The prosecutor’s office paid him $15,000 to reconstruct the shooting scene and create a diagram showing the distances that separated Slager and Scott when each shot was fired. His testimony came Wednesday after the defense challenged his qualifications, his lack of formal training and his trial-and-error methods for mapping out the scene.
Earlier this week, Newman had declared him an expert in various fields, including crime-scene analysis, while expressing qualms about the reliability of his testimony. The judge barred him from giving opinions about Taser use.
Much of Williams’ testimony concentrated on how he re-created the shooting scene along a yellow driveway near Craig and Remount roads. But the private contractor from Georgetown County started by recounting his personal history for 30 minutes and telling the jury how he got into his line of work.
Some jurors appeared captivated by Williams’ story. One laughed when he talked about the old computers he once used.
In Scott’s shooting, he pored over 30 DVDs of evidence: dispatch recordings, dashboard camera video, crime-scene pictures, Santana’s footage. He synced times from Slager’s Taser with the media to form a timeline, showing moments from when Scott jumped out of his car, when Slager shot the stun gun, when the officer fired his pistol.
The Taser’s trigger was pulled six times, Williams testified. The first came at 9:36 a.m. that day, and the others came in the 1 minute, 7 seconds that followed. The struggle between Slager and Scott, Williams estimated, started 13 seconds into that span; it also lasted 1 minute, 7 seconds.
But for that point in the encounter, William’s multimedia presentation featured only pictures of the yellow road where Slager said he had been locked in a fight with Scott.
“You’re not saying nothing is happening,” Wilson told Williams.
“I’m not going to attempt to show the struggle,” he responded. “That’s not possible.”
Not 'what actually happened'
The focus of Williams’ testimony, rather, was what happened during the shooting.
He pinpointed where Slager was standing when Scott turned away to run, as well as where Scott was each time a shot was fired. He used reference points like trees and a fence, along with pictures that investigators snapped of the scene, to line up those spots with Santana’s video.
It took 1.49 seconds for Scott to run about 17 feet, when the first bullet was fired, Williams estimated. The rest of the gunshots came in the next 2.69 seconds, he said.
Williams said he didn’t measure Scott's distance from Slager when the final shot went off because Santana had moved his cellphone camera.
As he pointed to a large television screen feet from the jury box, the witness cautioned repeatedly that his work was estimation.
“It’s realistic,” Williams said, “but it’s not meant to show what actually happened.”
Williams showed the jurors his final diagram, featuring Scott’s figure at the time of the first seven gunshots. But the image was stretched to fill the slideshow screen, making the distances between Scott and Slager appear greater. Williams acknowledged under defense questioning that it was a mistake.
“The first thing that one sees sticks in one’s mind,” said defense attorney Donald McCune, who had unsuccessfully challenged the diagram's use by the prosecution. “The presentation of the evidence is as important as the calculation of the evidence.”
Williams' calculations of the distances were still correct, he insisted, though he said some varied by an inch or two each time he did them. McCune asked whether that’s a problem in a shooting “where a matter of split seconds and inches is important.”
Time is vital, he agreed.
But as for “how far Mr. Scott is away from Mr. Slager,” Williams added, “inches don’t make a difference, in my opinion.”
The witness bowed his head in the back of the courtroom after he testified. Wilson thought Williams would be her last witness, but she decided to call another: SLED Agent James Tallon. Tallon did his own measurements of the scene, but Williams had testified earlier that the calculations were slightly off.
After both experts had testified Wednesday, they sat on a bench outside the courtroom, comparing their work on laptop computers.