Making Sense of the Mistrial in Shooting Death of Walter Scott

South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman declared a mistrial on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016, in the murder trial of former police officer Michael Slager after the jury announced they were unable to come to a unanimous decision on the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

The jury, composed of 11 white people and one black person, sent a note to the court on Monday afternoon stating, “We as the jury regret to tell the court that despite the best efforts of all members, we are unable to come to a unanimous decision.”  The court and all interested parties had an indication as early as Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, that a mistrial may have been eminent when one juror sent a note to the court indicating that he or she could not find Slager guilty.

Former Police Officer Michael Slager on Trial for the Murder of Unarmed Motorist Walter Scott

Although Slager faced a charge of murder in the shooting death of unarmed motorist Walter Scott in April 2015, Judge Newman agreed to allow jurors to also consider a charge of manslaughter in the case. Jury deliberations began on Wednesday, Nov. 30 after the prosecution and defense teams gave their final arguments. On Friday, Dec. 2, after the lone juror sent the note to the court, the jury requested to resume deliberations on Monday, Dec. 5, which the judge granted.

For Charleston County prosecutor Scarlett A. Wilson, the state’s case hinged on a video taken on the cell phone of a bystander after the traffic stop by then-officer Slager of Walter Scott turned into a brief skirmish between the two before Scott turned his back on Slager and began running away. The video captured Slager ordering Scott to stop before assuming a shooting stance and shooting at Scott eight times, striking him with five of those rounds in his back. Race was an additional issue in the case because it involved a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man.

In addition to Slager’s dashcam video that recorded the initial traffic stop, the two men talking, then Scott beginning to run away with Slager giving chase and the video taken by witness Feidin Santana that captured the end of the scuffle between the police officer and Walter Scott, with Scott then fleeing and being shot by Slager, the former North Charleston police officer alleged that Scott had taken the officer’s Taser with Slager stating he thought Scott was running toward him and not away from him as the video showed, with the intent to use the Taser against the officer.

Santana’s video showed a dark object fall to the ground behind Slager as he took his shooting stance, then later, once Scott was immobile on the ground and Slager approached him, and dropped a dark object next to Scott’s body. Slager said after the shooting that Scott had taken the officer’s Taser. Three swabs of the officer’s Taser for DNA by the South Carolina Law Enforcement DNA Analysis Unit left only questions. One of the swabs contained no DNA, a second swab contained only partial DNA, while a third swab contained a mixture of DNA that on analysis revealed that the mixture of DNA found could not exclude either Slager or Scott.

Slager, who took the witness stand in his own defense, said that he was in fear of his life when he shot Scott, thinking Scott had stolen the officer’s Taser in their earlier skirmish, and not knowing whether the passenger in Scott’s vehicle was armed or going to become involved in the incident.

Slager Mistrial Mirrors Outcome in Ray Tensing Trial

Ray Tensing, a former University of Cincinnati police officer accused of murder in the shooting death of unarmed motorist Samuel DuBose, found himself the recipient of a declared mistrial on Nov. 12, 2016.

Although some of the details about each incident differ, the main points between the charge of murder for Michael Slager in the death of Walter Scott and that of Ray Tensing in the death of Sam DuBose:

  • Both defendants are white and were on-duty police officers at the time of the incident.
  • Both victims were pulled over for traffic stops that escalated when the victims failed to produce needed documentation.
  • Both victims were unarmed black men
  • Both incidents were captured on video – a passerby captured a video of the shooting of Walter Scott by Michael Slager, footage that was beyond the range of the police dashboard camera; three videos were recorded by police body cams of the incident between Tensing and DuBose, including Tensing’s own body cam.
  • In both trials, jurors had the option of determining the guilt or innocence of the defendants on either a murder charge or a charge of voluntary manslaughter.
  • In both trials the majority of the jurors were white: Ray Tensing trial had 10 white and two black jurors; Michael Slager trial had 11 white and one black juror.
  • Mistrials were declared in each case after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on either murder or manslaughter charges.

Related Reading re: Charges for former officer Ray Tensing in shooting death of unarmed motorist Samuel DuBose:

Campus Police Officer’s Trial Begins After ‘Dream Jury’ Seated

In Tensing Mistrial, Jurors Caught Between Murder and Manslaughter

Second Trial for Former Cop Who Shot, Killed Motorist

Trials for Police Officers Who Killed Civilians While On Duty Mark Exceptions to the Status Quo

In 2015, 1,200 people died at the hands of law enforcement; in 2016, that number currently stands at 993. While most of those deaths were justified by the circumstances, some were questionable, including the incidents involving former police officers Michael Slager and Ray Tensing.

The fact that Slager and Tensing faced charges at all for their on-duty actions is an anomaly. Of the 1,200 people who died as a result of police actions in 2015, only seven officers face charges for their actions – and even that number is greater than in past years.

While the officers responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown and others were never on trial for their actions, re-trials for Slager and Tensing in the deaths of Walter Scott and Sam DuBose are slated to happen. These may be only two examples of a change in the criminal justice system attempting to hold law enforcement more responsible for their on-duty actions, but it is a change nonetheless. What remains to be seen is whether juries of their peers will also contribute to that accountability or give the former police officers a pass.

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