A government attorney said Friday that President Donald Trump's administration fully backs the prosecution of the former North Charleston policeman who shot Walter Scott.
The comment came as lawyers in Michael Slager's federal civil rights case discussed ground rules for his trial slated for May and whether jurors would be allowed to hear about the national turmoil over police killings.
Slager's defense team met recently with Department of Justice officials in Washington to address its view that the case had been unfairly handled — a meeting that raised further questions about the fate of the prosecution under Trump. The lawyers have long contended that federal authorities' role in the case was prompted by public outrage over police misconduct during Barack Obama's time as president.
Trump administration officials, particularly Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have declined to publicly discuss their stance on Slager's case. Sessions also indicated a dialing back of efforts to compel change at police departments embroiled in controversy over their tactics.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Klumb, a local prosecutor on the case, dismissed the view that Slager's charges had been "somehow politically motivated." During the hearing Friday in downtown Charleston, Klumb portrayed the current government's approach as similar to the one employed by Obama officials.
"Two administrations fully support this prosecution," he said.
U.S. District Judge David Norton ruled that the "public backlash" over police shootings and news media portrayals of the problem could not be brought up at the trial's start. Those topics can be addressed only if they somehow emerge through the evidence. They are otherwise "totally irrelevant," he said.
In the springtime trial, Slager will face up to life in prison if convicted of violating rights under the color of law in the April 2015 death of the 50-year-old Scott. He also is charged with lying to investigators.
No unexpected rulings were issued at Friday's hearing when the judge took up unresolved motions. Another follow-up proceeding was scheduled for 9 a.m. April 4, the second anniversary of the shooting.
Outside the courthouse Friday, lead defense attorney Andy Savage said he agreed that the government was still pressing forward but that it is now driven by lower-ranking prosecutors in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. The new administration, he said, invited him to his recent meeting in Washington, where the most vocal officials were the ones "with the least authority."
He noted that other police-involved deaths, including a New York City police officer's fatal choke-hold of Eric Garner, did not result in federal criminal charges.
"Anybody above the Mason-Dixon line, they got a pass," Savage said. "The crusaders in the civil rights department ... are still carrying the badge of the '60s and have that prism of life in the South.
"These charges shouldn't be based on geography or past history. They should be based on the facts."
Slager, 35, was tried on a murder charge last year in state court, but a jury could not agree on a verdict, prompting a mistrial.
Jurors for the federal trial will be chosen May 9 in Columbia starting from a pool of residents from across the state. Testimony will start the next week in Charleston.
Slager, who is white, pulled over Scott, a black man, for a broken brake light, but Scott ran. In an ensuing struggle, the officer said Scott grabbed his Taser and tried to use it against him. He fired in self-defense, he said.
But an eyewitness video showed the stun gun hitting the ground as Scott freed himself from the scuffle — Slager said he didn't know that — and started running away. Slager fired eight shots, five of which hit Scott from behind.
Just as it requested in the state trial, Slager's defense asked the judge to bar the video as evidence in the federal case, arguing that the footage didn't tell the whole story or give any insight into the officer's perspective.
"We have to judge this in the eyes of a reasonable police officer," Norton acknowledged.
But if there is something that helps a jury make that judgment, such evidence should be allowed, he ruled. The video will again be the most important piece of evidence in Slager's prosecution.
Washington-based civil rights prosecutor Jared Fishman added during the hearing that the jury would see for itself that the video doesn't tell the whole story and that it's blurry in parts. But key details still can be discerned, he said.
"The jury," he said, "can use common sense."