I am told that I sound like my mother when I speak. I share her round face, her diminutive frame, and her idealism about fundamental fairness and about what the world should be. I do not know, as my mother does, what it’s like to bury a child, but I sound like my mother when I weep.
I have been covering the death of Walter Scott since the day a former patrol officer gunned him down in an open field in North Charleston, South Carolina. Of my own volition, I traveled to the spot where the fatal shots were fired. I retraced Scott’s steps—from the moment he jetted from his car until a bullet struck him in the back near an old tree a block or so away. Alone in the grassy field, I knelt down over a heap of flowers and stuffed toys, trying to imagine the unimaginable.
“How could this be?” I said out loud to no one.
The tears began to fall as I came to the realization that this had not been the first time such horrors had unfolded and it would not be the last. Officer Michael Slager fired eight shots in all, five of them piercing Scott’s back from around 17 feet away, and then calmly planted his Taser near the dead man’s body.
Rather than attempt to render medical aid, Slager handcuffed Scott as he lay bleeding out in the dirt and grass.
Police chief Eddie Driggers said he was “sickened” by what he saw on the video, which directly contradicted statements made by the officer. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called it a betrayal of the public trust.
What I knew then is what I know now that a hung jury has failed to convict Slager: Despite video evidence and despite the outcry from public officials, getting a conviction in the case would be nearly impossible. Prosecutors would have to convince a jury that the 50-year-old black father and Navy veteran did not deserve to die and that his killing was unjustified.
It is rare that a police officer faces criminal penalty for killing an unarmed suspect. The most one can usually expect is administrative leave, pending investigation, only to later return to that force or get a job with another. And when there is an indictment, which is also elusive, finding a jury willing to convict is almost always out of reach.
The Slager jury had options. They could have returned a conviction for murder or voluntary manslaughter, which by definition would have placed some of the blame on the victim. From the witness stand, Slager told the courtroom that he “fired until the threat was stopped, like I’m trained to do.” He said Scott fought for his weapon.
It was difficult, knowing the strictures of race and class in the deep South, to believe Slager would be found guilty of either charge—especially from jury of 11 white people and a black foreman. The early signals, beginning last week, said the jury was hopelessly deadlocked and—in a letter to judge—one single juror said he could not “in good conscience consider a guilty verdict.”
That “conscience” is what bothers me most. To watch an officer of the law—or anyone, for that matter—repeatedly and coolly shoot someone in the back and not be able to appropriately assign guilt should trouble all of us. That fact is, too few are troubled by what happened that day. Too few of us, black or white, believe it could happen to us.
There is little hope that a federal investigation will continue, since Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions has been nominated as the next attorney general. So the only real opportunity for a successful prosecution rests at the local level, where the prosecutor has said that Slager will be retried (and he has at least been fired from the force).
Without significant reforms—in training, in how non-white communities are policed, and in the criminal justice system writ large—there will almost certainly be another Walter Scott.
And our tears are not enough.