Though troubled by Michael Slager's fatal shooting of Walter Scott, some jurors in the former North Charleston policeman's murder trial thought the charges he faced were "possibly a little too harsh," one of them told The Post and Courier.
Despite video showing Slager shooting Scott in the back, the juror said he and others were conflicted about using such powerful evidence and clear hindsight to judge an officer for a split-second decision.
The juror, a Mount Pleasant man, discussed what led to the panel's deadlock and the resulting mistrial in early December after a month of listening to evidence and four days of deliberating. He called the ordeal "hell — an experience I don't wish on anyone."
Three options were on the jury's table: convictions for murder or voluntary manslaughter, or an acquittal.
"People think it should have been easy. It’s not easy," the man said. "People go by that little 30-second (portion of the) video. … They sit back and decide just by a few seconds of what they see on TV. We couldn’t do that.”
The juror cited his safety in speaking on the condition of anonymity; the jury has been harshly criticized by some observers. He offered an alternative perspective to the jury foreman, who had said in a series of television interviews that the panel was torn over convicting Slager of manslaughter. But he reiterated the foreman's portrayal of many jurors leaving the courthouse still undecided.
When the case is set to go to trial again in two months, prosecutors and defense attorneys will be able to draw from the jurors' points of view.
Slager, 35, a white patrolman, killed Scott, a 50-year-old black man, in a shooting that many advocates saw as the epitome of the nationwide debate over how police use force against minorities. But experts cautioned that the case wasn't as straightforward as it seemed in the cellphone footage, pointing to the countless juries nationwide that have encountered impasses in meting out justice for police officers.
Looking ahead to the March 1 retrial, prosecutors who met with several jurors feel "reinvigorated," 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said. Wilson developed ideas from those meetings to make their presentation more effective, she said.
"I am very encouraged by their comments and their insight," she said without elaborating. "Their perspective has been quite interesting and will prove helpful to us moving forward."
Lead defense attorney Andy Savage said he had also spoken with jurors as part of a process of “evaluating everything from A to Z” to see whether his strategy will change the second time around.
With their identities sealed from public view, some of the jurors have stepped forward on their own to discuss their thoughts with the attorneys. But several, when reached by the newspaper, said they had agreed not to talk publicly about the ordeal. That's why national TV interviews by the foreman took some by surprise, said one juror, a West Ashley woman.
The foreman, Dorsey Montgomery, was the only black juror in a case that was racially charged from the outset. Though race is not alleged to have played a role, the shooting came during the national conversation about police-involved deaths of black people.
While he was the only juror to profess no knowledge of Scott's death before the trial, the foreman, too, said in an ABC interview that the public had largely ignored evidence of a scuffle before the gunfire. Montgomery said he initially thought Slager was guilty of murder but later concluded that it was manslaughter.
"You can’t go in there and make a decision on ... your emotions," Montgomery said during an appearance on ABC's "The View" last month. "I told them we have to stop and pull our emotions ... out of this and look at the facts."
The jurors heard from 55 witnesses.
They learned that Slager had pulled over Scott's car April 4, 2015, for a broken brake light. Scott stopped, but he soon ran. Slager tried to subdue Scott with a Taser, but the officer said Scott refused to give up. They fought, the lawman would later testify, and Scott took his stun gun. Slager said he fired in self-defense.
An eyewitness filmed the gunfire, and the footage showed the Taser bouncing on the ground — though Slager said he didn't know that at the time — and Scott running away as Slager opened fire.
For the Mount Pleasant man who served in Slager's case, it was his third murder trial as a juror. It was far more complicated than the others, he said.
To him, Slager's testimony sounded rehearsed, though he made the same observation of other witnesses.
"But I think he was sincere," the juror said.
Slager couldn't explain why he picked up his Taser after the shooting and dropped it near Scott's body, only to pick it up again seconds later. But prosecutors saw it as evidence that Slager had tried to stage the scene — a possible indicator of malice or evil intent, a requirement of the murder charge.
Some jurors agreed with the assessment, but the one from Mount Pleasant said he and others gave it little weight.
Some, he said, also considered the State Law Enforcement Division's investigation faulty, echoing a contention that the defense had stressed throughout the trial. Despite Slager's account of a struggle before the shooting, SLED might have missed key evidence by not running certain tests or examining certain evidence, he said.
"Hopefully," he said, "there will be changes made."
Not 'completely innocent?'
The juror could not recall how divided the panel was at the start of the deliberations, but members' views would evolve as their discussions wore on.
Montgomery, the foreman, told ABC that he came to realize that "what Michael Slager did was not malicious" and that the officer had a "brief disturbance in reason," a finding that supported the manslaughter charge.
Not everyone agreed. By the fourth and final day of their talks, the foreman told ABC, five of the 12 jurors had "made up their mind in one way" — without indicating a specific verdict — while six were undecided. One was "gung-ho" on acquittal and "was not changing his mind no matter what," Montgomery said.
Manslaughter requires a killing "in the heat of passion," but the jurors struggled to define that in terms they could relate to. In a note, they once asked Circuit Judge Clifton Newman for the difference between "passion" and "fear," the emotion that Slager said he felt in the confrontation with Scott.
But more than one member did not think Slager was guilty of any of the crimes he was charged with, the juror interviewed by The Post and Courier said.
"Part of the problem was the fact that he may not be completely innocent," he said, "but the charges we were given were possibly a little too harsh."
Things could have worked out differently, he said, if they had been given a lesser option, such as involuntary manslaughter. The charge carries up to five years in prison but no minimum sentence, while murder carries between 30 years and life behind bars. Voluntary manslaughter comes with 2 to 30 years.
But Wilson, the chief prosecutor, said that the judge had said involuntary manslaughter clearly did not fit the facts of the case. Slager clearly meant to use deadly force.
'Upsetting to all'
In the end, the juror said his fellow panel members had a "very hard time" faulting the policeman for a decision he made as a result of his job. They once sent a note to the judge asking whether the self-defense requirements are any different for law officers than for citizens.
“Society as a whole has not made it easy to be a policeman,” the juror said. “The cop on the street is always being second-guessed, always going to have 5 million eyes on him. Everybody is going to Monday morning quarterback it. But he’s out there, and he’s got to make a decision within a second or two."
A hung jury often occurs when an officer goes on trial. It happened twice for Richard Combs, the former Eutawville police chief who fatally shot Bernard Bailey in 2011. It happened in November with Ray Tensing, a white Ohio officer who shot a man in the head during a traffic stop.
Though disappointed by the jurors' indecision in Scott's case, his relatives remain hopeful that a conviction will come some day. State Rep. Justin Bamberg, a family attorney, said it's "perplexing" that the jury couldn't find a guilty verdict at least on manslaughter, though he acknowledged the difficulty of convicting officers. Part of the hurdle, he said, is that jurors "sometimes look at officers' conduct ... in a different light than they would a citizen."
"To some degree, that is OK. But to another degree, it's not," Bamberg said. "When the very first shot was 17 feet away and the person was running away, that's wholly unjust. ... But at the same time, I understand that jurors will look at the facts and weigh things that the general public doesn't weigh."
Even one juror, who was described in a note as a holdout for acquittal, had expressed misgivings with telling Scott's family that Slager was innocent. To Columbia attorney Bill Nettles, the top federal prosecutor in South Carolina when Slager was indicted in the federal case, that was a sign of the jury's dilemma.
"This wasn't a juror with a secret bias," Nettles said. "It was somebody who was really having a hard time."
Racial bias never was a factor, the juror from Mount Pleasant said. He took exception to the foreman's contention that race might have influenced at least one juror's opinion; no thoughts expressed during the talks indicated that, he said. Each member had referred to both Slager and Scott respectfully.
But emotions were obvious, he said. When the judge declared a mistrial in open court, one woman sobbed. She declined The Post and Courier's interview request.
"Everyone in there was trying hard to come up with a solution," he said. "It was upsetting to all of us that we couldn’t come up with a good solution."