The trial of the former police officer who shot dead Walter Scott, an unarmed African American, in an incident that was caught on cellphone video and reignited the debate on race and policing in the US, has ended in a mistrial.
Michael Slager, 35, was caught on film shooting Scott, 50, five times from behind after pursuing the father of four when he fled a traffic stop in South Carolina in April 2015. The video filmed by a witness, which propelled the case into the global spotlight, showed Scott was running away with his back turned when Slager, then an officer with the North Charleston police department, opened fire.
The jury of 11 white people and one black person was unable to reach a unanimous decision on the murder and manslaughter charges, meaning the case resulted in a mistrial. The result appears to have hung on the opinion of single juror who, on Friday, indicated in a note to the judge, Clifton Newman, that they could not “with good conscience consider a guilty verdict”.
The jury’s foreperson had pushed deliberations into a fourth day, after tense scenes in court on Friday, allowing jurors a weekend break after a monthlong trial.
State solicitor Scarlett Wilson said in a statement she would retry the case “whenever the court calls”.
Slager has also been indicted on federal civil rights charges that carry a maximum sentence of life, but the failure to reach a decision in this state murder trial will probably be seen as a stinging blow to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has campaigned doggedly for police reform and equal justice.
The result follows similar outcomes in other high profile trials of police officers accused of unlawfully killing unarmed African Americans across the country. Last month the trial of former Cincinnati campus police officer Ray Tensing ended in mistrial despite video evidence that prosecutors argued showed he had murdered Samuel DuBose. At the end of 2015 the first of six Baltimore police officers indicted in the death in custody of Freddie Gray also ended in a mistrial, paving the way for charges being dropped in the other cases.
During an emotional address on Monday, Wilson said the 12 men and women on the jury had been “exemplary” in their service.
“Y’all have been all-stars. And while I don’t mean to downplay or understate my disappointment that together we weren’t able to reach a resolution, no one can be critical of you,” Wilson said.
“You have sacrificed more than any of your peers in this community have for jury service and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.”
As Wilson addressed the jury, she paid tribute to Scott’s parents, Walter Sr and Judy Scott, whom she described as “leading this community to peace”.
Holding back tears, Wilson continued: “The whole world has remarked on Charleston and this community and how we’ve reacted over the past year and a half. The dignity and grace that this community saw started right here with the Scott family, and they have not gotten the credit they deserved.”
The couple sat in the second row of the public benches, Walter Sr with his arm around his wife.
As Slager’s defense attorney Andrew Savage also thanked the jury for their service, some of Scott’s supporters left the courtroom.
Judy Scott told reporters outside the courtroom that she was confident that Slager would be convicted in a retrial.
“Today I’m not sad, and I want you to know why I’m not sad. Because Jesus is on the inside. And I know that justice will be served because the God that I serve, he’s able,” Scott said, later raising her hands to the sky.
“God is my strength and I know without a doubt that he is a just God, and injustice will not prevail.”
The Scott family attorney, Chris Stewart, argued that Slager had escaped conviction “by a hair”.
“The fight isn’t over. That was round one. We’ve got two more rounds to go,” Scott said.
Anthony Scott, Walter’s brother, called for calm in the city after the trial’s outcome. “We’re not going to tear up this city. We’re going to keep it just the way it is. And we’re going to believe in peaceful protest.”
The judge had allowed the jury to consider a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, meaning an unlawful killing that occurred without “malice” but rather in the heat of passion after provocation. But the failure to reach a verdict indicates at least one juror believed that Slager’s decision to shoot Scott was a reasonable use of force.
The jury had sought sought clarification on the distinction between “fear” and “passion”, the potential difference between a justifiable self-defense claim and a manslaughter conviction. On Monday, the jury sent a list of six further questions relating to legal definitions and the nature of charges, indicating they were still at an impassable deadlock.
The former officer pleaded not guilty to murder and testified he had shot Scott because he was in “total fear” for his life after Scott had repeatedly disobeyed his commands and “grabbed” the officer’s Taser during a scuffle on the ground.
Although Slager conceded under cross-examination that the video showed he had opened fire after his Taser dropped to the ground and when Scott was at least 17ft away from him, he argued at the time of shooting his “mind was like spaghetti”, meaning he had perceived a greater threat.
Slager also said he was unable to remember why he could be seen in the video retrieving the Taser and dropping it next to Scott’s dead body, but denied it had been an attempt to plant evidence.
Slager’s defense team took an aggressive stance throughout the trial, first attempting to have the video struck out as evidence, and then accusing the witness who recorded it, Feidin Santana, of being ideologically opposed to law enforcement and unpatriotic for not handing the film over to authorities immediately.
Santana, a Dominican migrant who had never met Scott before, told the Guardianlast year that he had attempted to hand the recording to police immediately but was ignored, and eventually handed it over directly to the Scott family. Santana also said he lived in fear for his life after the incident.
“The impression that the media has, and the state is trying to sell you, is that nothing happened – he just ran after him and shot him in the back,” Savage told the jury. He argued that Slager had no opportunity to “pat him [Scott] down” during their interaction, meaning the officer did not know if the suspect was armed at the time he opened fire.
Wilson, solicitor of South Carolina’s ninth judicial district and lead prosecutor on the case, responded by accusing Slager’s defense team of bamboozling the jury with a large volume of testimony and attempting to characterize Scott as “a thug”.
A total of 55 people testified during the trial, ranging from eyewitnesses and Scott’s mother to members of the North Charleston police department and expert psychologists.
As Wilson made her final argument, she urged jurors to “do the right thing”, played the video of Scott’s death a final time and displayed a North Charleston police department badge on a screen for jurors to see.
“That badge is supposed to be a shield, not a sword,” Wilson said. “Our community, our courtroom, can only have one fountain for justice. It’s time for Michael Slager to take his drink.”
The Scott case also lead the US Department of Justice to commence a collaborative review of the North Charleston police department, following calls from local activists of routine bias in the department.