Hung jury: Mistrial declared in trial of Michael Slager for shooting Walter Scott

Of all the police shootings to get the media’s attention over the last few years, this is the one I thought would be most likely to produce a conviction. You’ve got a cop firing at an unarmed suspect who’s running away. The suspect is at least 17 feet from the cop and is hit in the back. What more do you need to know? Even a jury who’s sympathetic to the defense is going to do no worse than voluntary manslaughter.

Nope. Mistrial:

Judge Clifton B. Newman’s decision to halt the proceedings came three days after jurors signaled that they were within one vote of returning a guilty verdict against Mr. Slager, who could have been convicted of either murder or voluntary manslaughter for the killing of Walter L. Scott. But jurors also sent conflicting messages on Friday about whether they could break their impasse, setting off a confused legal frenzy…

The outcome in the Slager case is similar to the resolutions in other recent trials involving claims of police misconduct. This fall, a jury in Cincinnati deadlocked in the case of a university police officer who fatally shot a motorist who was black and unarmed. Here in South Carolina, juries twice deadlocked when considering charges against a rural police chief who fatally shot an unarmed black man. And in December 2015, the trial of a Baltimore police officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray ended in a mistrial. (After a judge, ruling in bench trials, cleared other Baltimore officers, the prosecutor there dropped all of the criminal cases in the matter of Mr. Gray’s death.)

Why did the judge declare a mistrial when jurors reportedly were within one vote of conviction on Friday? Because, apparently, the jury was less unanimous today after further deliberations than they were three days ago.

A majority of the jurors in the trail of Michael Slager, the former South Carolina police officer accused of murder in the shooting death of black motorist Walter Scott, are undecided about a verdict in the case, according to a note the jurors provided to the court on Monday.

The note also asked a number of questions of the court, including why was voluntary manslaughter added as a charge, how long must someone have malice in their mind toward someone to be convicted of murder. Jurors also asked whether the definition of self-defense for a police officer is different for an average person.

Prosecutors have said they’ll try Slager again, which is understandable after having missed a conviction by a single vote and also a smart pressure tactic to try to extract a plea bargain before the retrial. Read this account of Slager’s testimony during the trial of why he fired at Scott after Scott took off. There was, allegedly, a scuffle that wasn’t caught on the famous video. Scott ran away initially during a traffic stop; Slager caught up to him and tasered him, then tried to hold Scott down after he fell while radioing for back-up. Scott supposedly went for the taser and managed to knock it out of Slager’s hand; he “was extending his right arm, leaning forward and coming at me,” Slager testified. Scott then took off running again. That’s where the video picks up, with Slager pulling his gun and firing. Why did he shoot at an unarmed man? Slager claims he didn’t know that Scott was unarmed and thought he might still have the taser on him. But … the taser was already empty. So why would he fire on Scott if Scott wasn’t pointing anything at him, was facing in the other direction, running away, and didn’t have any darts left in the taser to use on Slager? Even if he thought Scott might have a gun, that suspicion has to be based on something more than “this suspect is running from a traffic stop and I don’t know why.”

Manslaughter, by the way, is defined simply under South Carolina law as “the unlawful killing of another without malice, express or implied” and carries a sentence of between two and 30 years. Even if the jury was squeamish about convicting Slager for murder because Scott had gone for his taser and Slager was alarmed, the only question on the manslaughter charge should have been if the killing was “unlawful” or not, i.e. whether Slager was firing in self-defense. Watch the clip below. Is that self-defense? If so, what’s the difference between “self-defense” and simply shooting a suspect to stop him from fleeing a scene? The second clip shows the court reading aloud some of the questions that jurors were asking before the mistrial was declared.