CHARLESTON, South Carolina—Walter Scott was eager to go to church the morning he was shot dead after fleeing a traffic stop.
Worship wasn’t on his mind, but rather free groceries. His buddy Pierre Fulton had told him of a food bank that operated at a local church in North Charleston, South Carolina.
“Yo, you up? Scott texted Fulton early on Saturday, April 4, 2015.
“Hell yeah,” Fulton replied.
The friends’ plan for the day was simple: Score the free grub and have a cookout. But Scott would not live past mid-morning.
His accused killer, former North Charleston policeman Michael Slager, is now on trial for murdering the unarmed Scott by shooting him five times in the back. As the murder trial enters its second week at the Charleston County Courthouse, jurors have heard numerous accounts of Scott’s final moments.
While no single person or device can comprehensively account for Scott’s last morning alive, a review of cellphone footage, phone conversations, text messages, police radio chatter, and witness testimony offers the chance to recreate the hours and minutes that preceded the 50-year-old man’s death.
That Saturday morning, the day before Easter, Scott picked Fulton up in a 1991 Mercedes sedan with peeling paint. The men drove to a Hardee’s fast-food restaurant, bought some biscuits, and then headed to the church food bank. There they each received a bag of groceries after exaggerating the number of dependents in their household, according to paperwork the men filled out at the church that was obtained by Slager’s defense team and presented in court last week.
Scott placed his food in the back seat—packages of carrots and oranges as well as a large brown grocery bag stuffed with beans, rice, and meat. The bounty was much appreciated by the men; neither earned much money at the local warehouse where they toiled as temporary workers. The free food offered Scott some relief from other significant expenses in his life; the father of four owed more than $18,000 in child support and was in the process of buying the 24-year-old Mercedes from a neighbor.
After dropping Fulton’s food off at his home, they proceeded toward Scott’s house, with Fulton still riding along. Fulton kept busy in the passenger seat texting women while Scott drove drove down busy Remount Road in North Charleston. Soon a police car loomed behind them.
“Man, are they pulling me?” Scott asked his friend as he steered the car left, across the street, and into the parking lot of an auto parts store.
Officer Slager followed close behind, his cruiser’s dashboard camera recording the traffic stop. A popular song by the band Everlast played on the cruiser’s radio.
“Then you really might know what it’s like,” went a line from the chorus, again and again.
Slager exited his parked cruiser and walked toward the stopped Mercedes. Approaching the vehicle, Slager pressed his hand against the Mercedes’s left taillight, a common police action during traffic stops that leaves an officer’s fingerprints on the car, which might be useful in case an officer goes missing or gets injured during the traffic stop.
“License, registration, and insurance card,” Slager demanded from Scott, explaining he had stopped the car because a brake light on the Mercedes was not functioning.
Scott handed over his license but could not produce proof of car insurance or a title. The motorist explained he would be officially purchasing the Mercedes in a few days, which seemed to satisfy Slager, at least temporarily.
“All right, I’ll be right back with you,” said Slager, taking Scott’s license back to his patrol cruiser.
As Slager sat in his car, the cruiser’s dashcam video shows Scott stepping out of the car about 30 seconds later, turning to address Slager in the police car.
“You have to stay in the car,” shouts Slager, prompting Scott to sit back down and close the driver’s side door.
Twenty seconds later Scott remained antsy as he sat beside Fulton, who was still texting.
“Next thing you know he was out the door,” testified Fulton last week. “Running.”
As Scott runs off camera and out of sight of Fulton, Slager can be heard chasing after him. No one immediately sees the men as they run away from the vehicles and engage in a scuffle, but their confrontation was overheard by Scott’s mother, Judy Scott, whom Walter Scott had called sometime after being pulled over.
Judy Scott was on her way to Walmart that morning, driving one of Walter Scott’s sons to the store to get his eyeglasses repaired. When Walter called and informed his mother her he had been stopped by the police, she pulled into the median in a panic. At this point, Slager had apparently caught up to Scott, attempting to overpower him with the help of a Taser.
“[Walter] didn’t sound very good, he sounded in distress,” Judy Scott testified last week. “All I heard was ‘get on the ground and put your hands behind your back.’”
“They Tasing me,” Walter Scott told his mother, who testified she heard her son “groaning like he was in excruciating pain.”
“Just do whatever he say,” Judy Scott said she recalled pleading with her son.
“You know North Charleston policemen so just do whatever they say,” she continued, referencing the racial tension that has existed in recent years between the community’s black population and police department.
Scott’s son Miles then took the phone from his grandmother, screaming and becoming upset over the action unfolding on the other end of the line. Abandoning their drive to Walmart, Judy Scott headed to the home of another son as they sought to understand Walter’s predicament.
Apparently losing the connection to his mother, Scott struggled with Slager.
Meanwhile, Slager was reporting the foot chase to other police officers over his radio. He described his location and the suspect in an excited voice, asking one officer nearby to “step it up” and assist in the chase.
At about this point Scott and Slager were spotted by 23-year-old Feidin Santana, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic heading to work at a barbershop. Santana testified he saw both Scott and Slager tussling on the ground, Scott desperately trying to escape the Taser as Slager punched him in the back. Santana could hear an “electric sound,” as could Fulton, still with the Mercedes.
Santana began filming the encounter, famously documenting the very end of the struggle as Scott pulled away from the officer, started running, and then dropped dead to the ground as Slager unloaded his handgun into Scott’s back.
“Shots fired. Subject is down. He grabbed my Taser,” Slager says over the radio as he approaches the lifeless Scott, preparing to handcuff the suspect.
“Oh, shit,” says Santana, shakily filming the scene through a chain link fence.
“Fucking abuse,” he says as sirens grow louder in the final moments of the footage, with other police officers converging on the fatal scene.
Slager’s defense team has yet to make their case in court. The murder trial resumes Monday in Charleston.