CHARLESTON, South Carolina — A judge declared a mistrial after a jury failed to reach a unanimous decision in the murder trial of former policeman Michael Slager, who killed unarmed motorist Walter Scott by shooting him in the back last year.
The jury returned their decision after a tense weekend in which Slager’s fate rested on a knife’s edge. On Friday, after deliberating for more than two days, the jury indicated in notes to a judge that they were deadlocked 11 to 1, the majority in favor of convicting Slager for either murder or manslaughter.
Though the lone holdout communicated to the judge that “I cannot and will not change my mind,” and the trial seemed on the verge of being declared a mistrial, the jury foreman said late Friday that he believed more deliberations would be beneficial. Judge Clifton Newman then ordered the jury to take the weekend off and return Monday morning to try and forge unanimous agreement.
"We as the jury regret to inform the court that despite the best efforts of all members we are unable to come to a unanimous decision," they told the judge, who then declared a mistrial.
The verdict capped a month-long trial that focused on a minutes-long foot chase between Slager and Scott on April 4, 2015, in North Charleston, South Carolina. Scott had fled from North Charleston policeman Slager during a traffic stop, initiating a chase and struggle that ended with Slager shooting Scott five times in the back. A bystander’s video captured much of the incident, provoking outrage over another police shooting of an unarmed black man.
As the mistrial was declared by Judge Clifton Newman on Monday, Slager’s wife and mother linked arms in the courtroom. Slager’s wife declined to speak immediately afterward, as did Slager’s attorney Andy Savage.
Moments later, Scott’s family and their attorneys spoke outside the courthouse on a chilly, damp December day. They were upbeat, stating that justice had merely been delayed, not thwarted, and that they looked forward to a related federal trial of Slager for alleged civil rights violations and an eventual retrial at the county courthouse, which local prosecutors have indicated will occur.
“If you thought we were going to come out crying, weeping, weak, then you don’t know the Scott family,” said family attorney Chris Sewart. “That was Round One … [Slager] may have delayed justice but he did not escape it.”
Scott’s mother, Judy Scott, said her religious faith gave her the strength to endure a six-week trial and the disappointing verdict it produced.
“It’s not over. Y’all hear me?” said Judy Scott, firmly. “It’s not over ’til God says its over.”
“We have the federal trial and another trial,” she said. “I’m just waiting on the Lord.”
One of Walter Scott’s brothers, Anthony Scott, urged that any protest of the verdict be peaceful and that people remain patient.
“We’re gonna trust God, he said. “We’re not gonna tear up this city.”
Anthony Scott praised the local prosecutor, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, for her performance during the trial.
“The solicitor did a phenomenal job on this case,” he said. “With the facts presented to the jury, they had everything they needed.”
While notes from the jury to the judge on Friday seemed to indicate a lone holdout, the split among jurors as to whether to convict Slager of murder or manslaughter remained unclear Monday.
In questions to the judge on Monday before becoming irretrievably deadlocked, the jury asked for multiple explanations of terms like “imminent fear” “malice aforethought” and “heat of passion,” aiming to parse the differences between murder, manslaughter and self defense, as defined by South Carolina law.
Before the case was handed to the jury, much of the trial focused on the bystander’s video of the encounter between Slager and Scott, where Scott can be seen slipping from Slager’s grip and running away from the officer. Meanwhile, Slager unholsters his firearm and shoots eight bullets at Scott, the first shot ringing out when Scott is 18 feet away with his back to the officer.
The video did not capture the men struggling seconds earlier, when Slager had used a Taser to briefly subdue Scott and the men tussled on the ground. Slager testified during the trial that Scott had yanked his Taser out of his hands during the struggle and then charged toward him with the weapon, making the police scared for his life.
“At that point I pulled my firearm and pulled the trigger,” he said. “I fired until the threat was stopped as I was trained to do.”
The sole eyewitness to the incident, Feidin Santana, disputed Slager’s account, declaring in his own testimony that Scott was never the aggressor and only sought to escape the policeman. Prosecutors speculated that Scott ran from the police because he owed child support payments and a warrant was out for his arrest.
“It wasn’t a fight,” said Santana. “It was an injustice what I saw.”
Much of the trial revolved around Santana’s video, which he filmed while he was walking to work at a barbershop. Beyond the shooting, the video showed its aftermath, when Slager jogged to retrieve his Taser from the ground after Scott fell, then dropped it beside the dead man’s body, then picked it up again.
Prosecutors accused Slager of meddling with the crime scene and lying to investigators about his actions. Slager denied wrongdoing and testified he could not remember moving the weapon.
“I don’t know why I dropped it on the ground, but I picked it up a few seconds later,” Slager testified.
Slager is not entirely off the hook, as he still faces a civil trial by the U.S. Department of Justice for violating Scott's civil rights.
The Slager verdict follows other recent legal conclusions to controversial police shootings of black men. Last month a mistrial was declared after jurors deadlocked in the murder trial of former University of Cincinnati officer Ray Tensing, whose shooting of unarmed motorist Sam DuBose in July 2015 was also caught on camera.
On Wednesday, a Charlotte prosecutor announced a police officer “acted lawfully” in the killing of Keith Scott, a 43-year-old man who exited his vehicle with a gun on September 20 and ignored officers’ commands before being shot dead.