A lawyer for the North Charleston officer who shot Walter Scott repeated a call this week for an examination of whether the lawman's prosecution was sparked by a "rush to judgment" amid national furor over police practices.
His comments came as authorities prepare for the federal trial of Michael Slager, the white former patrolman facing up to life in prison if convicted of civil rights violations in the black man’s death.
But skepticism over the new government’s approach to the case continued to swirl this week as key officials in Washington again refused to publicly back the prosecution or other measures that target alleged police misconduct.
Slager’s lead defense attorney, Andy Savage of Charleston, said he was in the capital this week but declined to discuss his business there.
Before Slager was indicted in federal court last year, Savage pleaded for a meeting with Justice Department officials from President Barack Obama’s administration. Such summits are routine in significant criminal cases, but it was rejected for Slager, Savage said.
With the federal trial less than two months away, the lawyer declined to say whether he planned to meet with Washington-based prosecutors. He said he had “not observed any change” from how aggressively federal and local authorities were pursuing their cases against his client.
Slager, 35, has stood by his innocence since a cellphone video captured him shooting Scott, 50, in the back — footage that reignited scrutiny of police uses of force nationwide.
If a meeting in Washington had taken place before the indictment, Savage said this week, “we would have taken advantage of the opportunity to present Michael's position … that there was a rush to judgment caused in large measure by the racial and law enforcement issues that were plaguing our country and dominating the news at that time.”
That Slager’s state murder trial ended last year with a hung jury, Savage said, “lends credence to our theory.”
U.S. Attorney Beth Drake, the chief federal prosecutor in South Carolina, could not be reached for comment about any discussions in Washington. Her office is helping the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division prosecute it.
Asked Thursday about such talk, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Lance Crick said, “We really have no comment."
A judge overseeing the federal case will take up pretrial motions on March 17 in U.S. District Court. Jury selection is set to begin May 9 in Columbia ahead of the trial the next week in downtown Charleston.
In the state case, a hearing also is planned for noon Tuesday at the Charleston County courthouse, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said.
Slager's defense team, meanwhile, asked Wilson’s office this week to hand over any evidence of aid they might have given or promised their star witness, Feidin Santana, who filmed the officer shooting Scott.
The motion filed late Wednesday seeks details of any valuable items or special treatment afforded Santana, a Dominican Republic native, or any "accommodation which could arguably reveal a motive or bias by the witness in favor of the state." They might include, Savage said: immigration assistance, help in legal disputes, money, food, clothing, shelter or transportation.
A separate defense filing on Wednesday sought documentation of testing done on Slager's Taser, a key piece of evidence.
The stark video evidence of Scott’s death dealt a blow to North Charleston, a city long marked with tension between some minority communities and law enforcers.
The patrolman pulled over Scott’s car April 4, 2015, for a broken brake light and gave chase when Scott ran. They struggled. Slager said Scott grabbed his Taser and turned it against him. The officer said he fired to stop that threat.
His decision to shoot played out in seconds, and he insisted that he never saw the stun gun bounce to the ground as Scott turned to run. Santana’s video showed Slager drawing a pistol and firing eight shots; five hit Scott.
Slager was arrested three days later and charged with murder in state court.
Months passed before a federal grand jury indicted him on three counts, including violating rights under the color of law. The charge is tailor-made for allegations of excessive force by officers, but legal experts considered the federal case a backstop if the state prosecution were to falter.
Indeed, a state jury could not agree late last year on a verdict. The hung jury prompted a mistrial. Scheduling concerns pushed Slager's retrial to August.
The federal trial became the focus, but questions have surfaced among observers about its fate.
Since President Donald Trump was elected, his vice president has refused to publicly support the prosecution. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has denounced federal meddling in police agencies and attributed a nationwide rise in violent crime to sinking morale among law enforcement.
Under Sessions’ predecessors, police agencies found themselves under the FBI’s microscope for alleged civil rights violations. Such probes typically prompt court-approved “consent decrees” that compel police to make changes, but Sessions has voiced concerns about such measures.
North Charleston was not immune to allegations of unfair policing, but it sought the government’s help in the wake of Scott’s death, inviting a Justice Department unit to review the police and suggest any tweaks — a less adversarial alternative to an FBI probe. The effort is still going on.
Sessions has focused instead on driving down crime by targeting violent offenders. He issued a memo Wednesday to all federal prosecutors, reasserting that policy and promising new guidance for all criminal cases.
It’s still unclear, though, how exactly he will approach policing the police.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, and other civil rights leaders met this week with Sessions. Sharpton brought up the Scott shooting, he said earlier this week on MSNBC.
But Sharpton said he got few answers.
“(Sessions) said on Walter Scott that he’s aware the case is moving forward,” he said. “But he couldn’t tell us how aggressive.”