Charleston's top prosecutor said the police shooting of Walter Scott was a "close call" between murder and manslaughter but that a case could be made for either crime.
A court transcript unsealed Tuesday revealed 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson's advice to investigators who arrested North Charleston officer Michael Slager in April 2015. The details came during her closed-door testimony before Slager's murder trial, which ended last year when jurors couldn't decide whether the shooting was a crime.
The Post and Courier had asked for the records' public release, citing constitutional provisions on open courts.
Wilson and opposing defense lawyers recently voiced support for their release before Slager is sentenced in federal court, where a judge's determination about whether the killing was murder or manslaughter could have great impact on the punishment. Wilson will have a chance during sentencing to express her views, making her opinion vital, the defense has argued.
"My impression was that it was a close call," Wilson testified during an October pretrial hearing. "I felt like voluntary manslaughter might be a better fit, but I also thought that there certainly could be a case made for malice," a key component to murder.
Slager pulled over Scott's car for a broken brake light on April 4, 2015. Scott ran, and the two got into a struggle. The officer said Scott grabbed his Taser, prompting his gunfire. But an eyewitness video showed Scott, 50, separating himself and running away before Slager fired eight times. Five bullets hit Scott from behind.
Slager pleaded guilty this spring to violating Scott's civil rights. As part of an agreement, prosecutors in state court dropped the murder charge.
But that puts his fate in the hands of U.S. District Judge David Norton, who must determine the underlying crime that Slager committed in violating Scott’s rights. The options include involuntary and voluntary manslaughter, but federal prosecutors are expected to argue for second-degree murder.
The decision could pin Slager's sentence between less than five years in prison and about 20 years.
Wilson pursued the murder charge during last year's trial, but jurors also had the manslaughter option. Ultimately, they couldn't agree on whether Slager should be convicted of either or be acquitted of both. A mistrial was declared.
In preparing for a second trial, defense attorney Andy Savage cited Wilson's testimony and said the prosecutor "doesn't believe in" the murder charge.
Savage said recently that Wilson's thoughts are still important because Slager's plea deal affords the prosecutor a chance to speak during the upcoming federal sentencing, which has not been scheduled.
But Wilson said in court documents that Savage's comments on her views were "wildly misleading." Instead, Wilson said, she knew that convicting a police officer would be difficult, and she told State Law Enforcement Division agents that manslaughter might be a better option.
In the end, though, it was SLED's choice, she testified, according to the transcript that Circuit Judge Clifton Newman cleared for release Tuesday.
"I gave a rendition of what the law is and what fits," she testified. "I did not instruct them as to what to charge him and what not to charge."
While SLED opted to arrest Slager on the murder count after the video surfaced, Wilson ultimately had him indicted on the same charge and posed evidence during his trial that she said supported key elements of that crime.
She acknowledged in her recent filing that reasonable minds may differ on what Slager's crime was.
"The only mind that matters now, however, is that of Judge Norton," she wrote. "We have no doubt the judge will make a sound decision based on all the right factors."