Michael Slager sighed as the video appeared Tuesday on the TV screen above him. It was the same footage that had landed the former North Charleston policeman in jail for Walter Scott’s death.
It played, and a prosecutor pointed to something on the ground: the Taser that Slager said Scott had taken from him during a fight.
Slager can see that now, he said.
The video kept playing, and the sound of the first gunshot from Slager’s gun filled the courtroom. The prosecutor said Scott was about 18 feet away from the officer.
Slager can see that now, he said.
The video played on, and the prosecutor froze the screen as it showed Slager dropping the Taser near Scott’s lifeless body.
Slager can see that now, he said.
While he can see those things from the video, Slager testified in his own murder trial that he didn’t realize them at the time. He knew only that he was scared of Scott, that he fired and fired — eight times in all — until Scott went down.
“Going back 18 months later and looking at everything,” he said, “things could have been different.”
But he stood by his decision in that moment to shoot Scott, offering the 12 jurors who will deliberate his fate as soon as Wednesday the most exhaustive accounting yet of a police killing that sent waves through a national discussion over officers’ uses of force against black people.
The defense rested its case late Tuesday after four of Slager’s former co-workers took the stand and vouched for his honesty. In all, 23 witnesses testified for the defense, compared with the prosecution's 32.
Closing arguments are expected sometime Wednesday. They could come after the jury’s visit to the shooting site, if the presiding judge approves it. The judge, Clifton Newman, also will decide whether jurors should consider during deliberations legal concepts about "fleeing felons" that allow officers to use force on fleeing suspects who pose an immediate threat to someone. But he indicated that he thought Slager's trial was a "simple self-defense case."
Slager spoke in calm, measured tones as the jurors sat at attention. His voice occasionally cracked, and he wiped some tears as he recounted the thoughts that he said were streaming through his mind when he shot at Scott. He told jurors that he had been in jail as his first child was born — a boy his wife had conceived through in vitro fertilization. He would later sit in a cell next to mass killer Dylann Roof.
“My family has been destroyed by this,” he said. “The Scott family has been destroyed by this. It's horrible.”
He answered some 700 questions from his own attorney and from prosecutors. Before Tuesday, the most detailed recounting of the episode had been state investigators’ notes and memos about their interview with Slager three days after the killing.
Acknowledging gaps in his memory, he failed to recount certain portions of the encounter that favored his defense and others that helped the prosecution. He didn’t recall what his lead attorney, Andy Savage, alleged in front of jurors were Scott’s words during the encounter: “F--- the police.” The phrase had been culled from an expert’s interpretation of the video's audio track, though prosecutors have noted that someone else could hear something different in the footage.
The eyewitness who filmed the video, Feidin Santana, watched the testimony from the front row of spectator seating. It was his first appearance in the courtroom since he testified earlier in the trial.
Behind him, Scott’s mother pressed her hands together as if to pray.
‘Fuzzy in my mind’
April 4, 2015, started as a normal Saturday morning, Slager testified. He noticed Scott’s car on Remount Road; its middle brake light was out.
Slager intended to give Scott a warning, he said. But Scott also didn't have insurance documents.
From his cruiser, the officer prepared to run Scott’s identity through an FBI background check. But he didn’t have time. He learned later, he testified, what the result would have said: “Wanted person. Caution. Armed and dangerous. Violent tendencies.”
It wasn’t clear why Scott was labeled that way. He had decades-old arrests on assault and weapons charges. But his arrest warrant was for falling behind on child-support payments.
Scott got out of his car and ran. If Slager had known that history, the officer would have thought twice before giving chase, he said.
“I wouldn’t have gotten out,” Slager testified. “I would have called for backup right away.”
The patrolman chased Scott down Craig Road. Scott turned right and briefly disappeared, Slager said.
Slager’s attorneys have floated ideas in front of the jury that Scott could have tossed out some drugs during the foot chase. The jurors have heard no evidence of that, noted Chief Deputy Bruce DuRant during Slager’s testimony.
“Fact of the matter is,” DuRant said, “you’ve started to make up things as we go along.”
Slager said he didn’t know what Scott was doing.
“I don’t know why he’s running for a brake light,” he said. “In the back of my mind … there’s other factors, other things going on.”
Slager fired his Taser, but it didn’t work. He reloaded and fired again. Scott went down and hit the yellowish road in the vacant lot. When Scott started to get up, Slager said he pulled the Taser’s trigger again.
But he couldn’t hold Scott down, he said.
“I knew Mr. Scott was a lot stronger than me,” he said. “I think we’re rolling around on the ground. That’s really fuzzy in my mind.”
‘I’m not angry’
He couldn’t remember every movement; it happened so fast, he said.
With his Taser in his right hand, he used his left to push a button on his radio and call for help from his patrol partner.
Backup had always been nearby when Slager got into fights before, he said. He once used a Taser to stop a driver who jumped out during a car chase. They tussled, and the suspect got his Taser, he said. But other officers were there to handcuff the man.
Help wouldn’t arrive in time to help him with Scott, who had gotten the upper hand, Slager testified.
“I’m losing the fight,” he said.
As the officer spoke into his radio, Scott grabbed his Taser and ripped it away, he said. At times during the testimony, Slager closed his eyes and motioned with his hands, indicating the locations of the Taser and the devices’ wires as he remembered them.
His voice wavered. His parents, sitting in the courtroom pews, wept.
Slager testified that Scott came at him while they were on the ground.
“I see him with the Taser in his hand,” he said. “That’s the only thing I see. ... I see that barrel … coming at me, and I knew I was in trouble.”
Prosecutors have sought to portray him as a person with normal feelings of sadness and anger — a bid to show that Slager had some evil intent, a requirement of the murder charge. He insisted that he had always kept his emotions in check.
“I’m not angry,” he said. “I’m just doing my job.”
'Like I'm trained'
With Scott clutching the Taser, Slager said, they rose from the ground.
From the witness stand, Slager held out his right arm and formed his fingers into the shape of a Taser. He said Scott leaned toward him as they faced each other. He was “scared,” he said.
“I was in total fear that Mr. Scott didn’t stop, continued to come towards me,” Slager testified. “I pulled my firearm, and I pulled the trigger.”
He was asked how many times he fired, and he softly wept.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I fired until the threat was stopped like I’m trained to do.”
At the time, he testified, he didn’t know the Taser had fallen behind him.
When DuRant stretched out a measuring tape to display the distance that separated Slager and Scott at the first gunshot, the former officer said he had a "different perception" of the span.
“That decision was made when Mr. Scott was 27 inches away, toe to toe,” he said. “At that point, I made the decision to use lethal force. He was still dangerous.”
The video captured Slager glancing behind him after the gunfire. He was scanning for threats, he said.
But DuRant suggested that Slager had looked at the Taser because he had known all along where it was. Slager handcuffed Scott, then promptly walked to the stun gun, picked it up and dropped it near the body.
“I don’t know why I dropped it on the ground,” he said. “I have no answer to that.”
His mind, he said, was “like spaghetti.”
The defense used an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder to explain that. Charles Morgan, a forensic psychiatrist from Connecticut’s University of New Haven, said holes in an officer’s perception after a shooting are normal. People also usually don’t have time to rethink a decision that they make under extreme stress, he added.
“You don’t have time to second-guess things when you’re operating on that level,” Morgan said. “That behavior is pretty automatic.”
Before ending its case, the defense offered the jury four more witnesses, all North Charleston police officers who vouched for Slager.
“He’s known as an honest officer, a truthful man,” Detective Charlie Benton said.
But prosecutors had reminded Slager of the oath he had sworn and the ethics he had been bound to uphold. He was asked to read from his former agency’s policy that allowed lethal force against a “fleeing felon” only if that person poses “an immediate threat to human life.”
“Protection of life,” Slager read, “must take priority over apprehension of criminals.”