Yesterday afternoon there were some disturbing reports coming out of South Carolina. The jury in the trial of former police officer Michael Slager had reached some sort of impasse and they were afraid that they would be deadlocked. Fortunately, by the time various notes were exchanged with the judge, a compromise was reached and the jurors were allowed to retire for the weekend, rest up and try again on Monday. That doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, however. (Washington Post)
After more than two days of deliberations, a jury weighing the fate of a former South Carolina officer who was filmed last year shooting a fleeing motorist after a traffic stop said they wanted to take the weekend off and pick back up on Monday morning.
Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman granted the request after an unusual day that saw the jury sent back to deliberate at one point before a juror sent a letter saying they could not consider a guilty verdict, implying that they were deadlocked, before the jury later asked to continue deliberating.
Because of the secretive nature of the jury process it’s hard to pin down all the details exactly but there’s seems to be agreement on one point. There is a single juror on that panel who is holding up the process. Rather than speaking as a group, one juror sent a rather apologetic note to the judge which pretty much threatens to crash and burn the entire trial. The court released the details.
“I cannot with good conscience consider a guilty verdict,” the letter said. “I respect the position of my fellow jurors, some of which oppose my position. I expect those who hold opposing views not to change their minds because I see them as good, honest people. Therefore I regret to say we may never reach a unanimous decision.”
However, the person added that while he could not convict Michael Slager, the police officer charged with murder in the fatal shooting of Walter Scott, “my heart does not want to have to tell the Scott family that the man who killed their son, brother, and father is innocent.”
What’s missing from this message is the key point of whether the juror “can’t consider” a guilty verdict on one specific charge (presumably the most serious one… murder) or if they won’t entertain a guilty vote on any charges at all. If it’s the former then there are still going to be plenty of upset people (assuming this winds up being a lower level manslaughter conviction), but at least some sort of justice can be held up for public review. If it’s the latter and Slager walks as a result of a hung jury then we’re going to have a very ugly scene on our hands. I still will never endorse rioting and violent protests, but in this case I will at least understand what got some folks upset if it happens.
That’s why there’s a bigger risk in having this trial fail than the basic question of justice and seeing the guilty convicted. We’re talking about the trial of a cop who killed a suspect and almost every one of these instances winds up causing major public controversy. In the vast majority of incidents, the use of lethal force is justified and officers are either exonerated at trial or not charged in the first place. This leaves protesters up in arms and those of us trying to sort out the details wind up defending the police in what are often unpopular, divisive debates. That’s why when we actually do find a bad cop who has broken the law (which clearly appears to be the case here) it’s important to come up with a conviction. This is the only way to challenge the mantra in the streets about how all cops are suspect to begin with and they can never be punished.
No, I haven’t forgotten the maxim of people being innocent until proven guilty. (I suppose O.J. was “innocent” too.) But anyone who has watched that video of Walter Scott’s last moments and seen all of the supporting evidence and testimony shouldn’t have much doubt in their minds. Scott was no saint and he obviously did a number of things wrong that day, such as attempting to flee the scene, fighting with the officer and attempting to take his taser. There were moments during the scuffle when we likely could have excused Slager for resorting to deadly force, particularly if Scott had control of the taser and was coming at him. But in the end, the unarmed, overweight, fifty year old man was nearly twenty feet away, jogging slowly, when he was shot in the back.
I don’t know what’s going through the mind of that one juror who, “cannot with good conscience consider a guilty verdict.” But they should be aware that they’re endangering a lot more than one murder case.