Screenshot of phone video taken by eyewitness Feidin Santana, showing Officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott
|Date||April 4, 2015|
|Time||9:30 a.m. (EDT)|
|Location||North Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.|
|Filmed by||Feidin Santana|
|Convictions||Deprivation of rights under color of law|
|Sentence||20 years in prison|
|Litigation||Wrongful death lawsuit settled for $6.5 million|
The shooting of Walter Scott occurred on April 4, 2015, in North Charleston, South Carolina, following a daytime traffic stop for a non-functioning brake light. Scott, an unarmed man, was shot and killed by Michael Slager, a North Charleston police officer. Slager was charged with murder after a video surfaced that showed him shooting Scott from behind while Scott was fleeing, and that contradicted his police report. The race difference led many to believe that the shooting was racially motivated, generating a widespread controversy.
The case was independently investigated by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina, and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division conducted their own investigations. In June 2015, a South Carolina grand jury indicted Slager on a charge of murder. He was released on bond in January 2016. In late 2016, a five-week trial ended in a mistrial due to a hung jury. In May 2016, Slager was indicted on federal charges including violation of Scott's civil rights and obstruction of justice. In a May 2017 plea agreement, Slager pleaded guilty to federal charges of civil rights violations, and he was returned to jail pending sentencing. In return for his guilty plea, the state's murder charges were dropped.
Walter Lamar Scott[note 1] (February 9, 1965 – April 4, 2015) was a forklift operator, studying massage therapy. An arrest warrant had been issued since a January 16, 2013 court hearing regarding his child support payments. Scott had previously been jailed three times because of the child support payments. Scott previously served two years in the U.S. Coast Guard before being given a general discharge in 1986 for a drug-related offense.
Michael Thomas Slager, 33 years old at the time of the incident, served in the North Charleston Police Department (NCPD) for five years and five months prior to the shooting. Before becoming a police officer, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Slager was named in a police complaint in 2013 for allegedly using a Taser on a man without cause. Slager was cleared by the police department over the incident; the victim and several witnesses said they were not interviewed. Following the Scott killing, North Charleston police stated they would re-review the 2013 complaint. Slager was named in a second tasing-without-cause complaint following an August 2014 police stop. A complaint filed in January 2015 resulted in Slager being cited for failing to file a report.
Local residents have complained that police activity in North Charleston includes the harassment and racial profiling of African Americans, including frequent use of Tasers without cause. In North Charleston, whites make up 37% of the population, but the police department is 80% white.
At 9:30 a.m., April 4, 2015, in the parking lot of an auto parts store at 1945 Remount Road, Slager stopped Scott for a non-functioning third brake light. Scott was driving a 1991 Mercedes, and, according to his brother, was headed to the auto parts store when he was stopped. The video from Slager's dashcam shows him approaching Scott's car, speaking to Scott, and then returning to his patrol car. Scott exited his car and fled with Slager giving chase on foot.
Slager pursued Scott into a lot behind a pawn shop at 5654 Rivers Avenue, and the two became involved in a physical altercation. At some point before or during the struggle, Slager fired his Taser, hitting Scott. Scott fled, and Slager drew his .45-caliber Glock 21 handgun, firing eight rounds at him from behind. The coroner's report stated that Scott was struck a total of five times: three times in the back, once in the upper buttocks, and once on one of his ears. During Slager's state trial, forensic pathologist Lee Marie Tormos testified that the fatal wound was caused by a bullet that entered Scott's back and struck his lungs and heart. Official autopsy reports have not been released.
Immediately following the shooting, Slager radioed a dispatcher, stating, "Shots fired and the subject is down. He grabbed my Taser."
When Slager fired his gun, Scott was approximately 15 to 20 feet (5 to 6 m) away and fleeing. In the report of the shooting filed before the video surfaced, Slager said he had feared for his life because Scott had taken his Taser, and that he shot Scott because he "felt threatened".
A toxicology report showed that Scott had cocaine and alcohol in his system at the time of his death. The level of cocaine was less than half the average amount for "typical impaired drivers", according to the report. Tormos testified that Scott did not test positive for alcohol.
|Shooting (3:12) on Vimeo|
An eyewitness to the shooting, Feidin Santana, recorded video of the incident on his phone. At first Santana did not share the video out of fear of retribution, but he became angered when the police report differed from his view of the events. In an interview on MSNBC, Santana said, "I felt that my life, with this information, might be in danger. I thought about erasing the video and just getting out of the community, you know Charleston, and living some place else." The video was subsequently shared with Scott's family through an activist of Black Lives Matter, and later with the news media.
Santana said that after a struggle in which Slager deployed his Taser, Scott was "just trying to get away from the Taser," and that before he started recording, he observed that Slager "had control of the situation". In an interview on The Today Show, Santana said Scott "never grabbed the Taser of the police. He never got the Taser."
After Scott was shot and had dropped to the ground, Slager approached him, repeatedly instructed him to place his hands behind his back, and handcuffed him, leaving him face down on the ground. Although police reports stated that officers performed CPR on Scott, no such action is visible on the video. The video shows that Slager ran back toward where the initial scuffle occurred and picked something up off the ground. Moments later, he dropped the object, possibly the Taser, beside Scott's body.
Critics, such as the Reverend Al Sharpton and the predominantly African-American National Bar Association, called for the prosecution of Clarence Habersham, the second officer seen in the video, alleging an attempted cover-up and questioning "whether Habersham omitted significant information from his report." Critics also questioned Habersham's statement in his report that he "attempted to render aid to the victim by applying pressure to the gunshot wounds," saying that the videotape shows little attempt to aid Scott after the shooting.
Slager's original lawyer, David Aylor, withdrew as counsel within hours of the release of the video; he did not publicly give a reason for his withdrawal, citing attorney–client privilege.
On April 8, the North Charleston city manager announced that the NCPD had fired Slager but would continue to pay for his health insurance because his wife was pregnant. The town's mayor, Keith Summey, said they had ordered an additional 150 body cameras, enough that one could be worn by every police officer.
A GoFundMe campaign was started to raise money for Slager's defense, but it was quickly shut down by the site. Citing privacy concerns, they declined to go into detail about why the campaign was canceled, saying only that it was "due to a violation of our terms and conditions".
Scott's killing further fueled a national conversation around race and policing. It has been connected to similar controversial police shootings of black men in Missouri, New York, and elsewhere. The Black Lives Matter movement protested Scott's death.
A bill in the South Carolina state house, designed to equip more police officers with body cameras, was renamed for Scott. The Senate set aside $3.4 million to fund it, enough to buy 2,000 cameras for South Carolina officers.
In May 2016, a short documentary film about the shooting called Frame 394 was released by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The documentary is about Daniel Voshart, a Canadian cinematographer and image stabilization specialist, who claims to have discovered evidence in frame 394 of the shooting video "that challenged the accepted narrative of what transpired between Slager and Scott"; and it follows his "moral dilemma of what to do with this potential key evidence". Initially, Voshart examined the footage to help indict Slager, having been convinced by the footage that it "was an example of police corruption at its worst". After clarifying the video and inspecting frame 394, however, he noticed that as Slager began reaching to draw his firearm, it appeared that Scott was still holding Slager's Taser, "potentially enough to make Slager fear for his life and maybe meet the grounds needed to use lethal force." It was impactful in Slager's trial after Voshart showed Slager's lawyer, Andy Savage, the stabilized video. However, during the trial, the officer "testified that he did not realize the Taser had fallen behind him when he fired the fatal shots."
After the police department reviewed the video, Slager was arrested on April 7 and charged with murder. On June 8, a South Carolina grand jury indicted Slager on the murder charge.[note 2] The murder charge was the only charge presented to the grand jury.
On January 4, 2016, after being held without bail for almost nine months, Slager was released on $500,000 bond. He was confined to house arrest until the trial, which began October 31, 2016. On December 5, the judge declared a mistrial after the jury became deadlocked with 11 of the 12 jurors favoring a conviction. A retrial had been scheduled to begin in August 2017. However, the state charges were dropped as a result of Slager pleading guilty to a federal charge.
On May 11, 2016, Slager was indicted on federal charges of violating Scott's civil rights and unlawfully using a weapon during the commission of a crime. In addition, he was charged with obstruction of justice as a result of his statement to state investigators that Scott was moving toward him with the Taser when he shot him. Slager pleaded not guilty, and a trial was scheduled to begin in May 2017. Slager faced up to life in prison if convicted.
On May 2, 2017, as part of a plea agreement, Slager pleaded guilty to a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242, deprivation of rights under color of law. In return for the guilty plea, the charges of obstructing justice and use of a firearm during a crime of violence were dismissed.
On December 7, 2017, U.S. District Judge David C. Norton sentenced Slager to 20 years in prison. Although defense attorneys had argued for voluntary manslaughter, the judge agreed with prosecutors that the "appropriate underlying offense" was second-degree murder. Because there is no parole in the federal justice system, Slager will likely remain in prison about 18 years after credit for time served in jail. He began serving his sentence in Colorado's Federal Correctional Institution, Englewood in February 2018. An appeal for reduction of sentence was denied in January 2019.
"If Walter Scott had not resisted arrest, he wouldn't have been shot. He paid the extreme consequence for his conduct. He lost his life for his foolishness," she acknowledged. But Slager is on trial for murder because of what he did after Scott broke away from the officer, she said.
It [Frame 394] had its World Premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto in May 2016.
The response was staggering—comments expressing hatred and violence toward Slager shocked Voshart, who was convinced the video was an example of police corruption at its worst. [...] It's during this process that he discovered something no one else had seen: There was something in frame 394 that challenged the accepted narrative of what transpired between Slager and Scott, and could potentially even help Slager's defense. [...] Directed by Rich Williamson, 'Frame 394' is about Voshart's moral dilemma of what to do with this potential key evidence.
Voshart's work drastically impacted the officer's trial. [...] Hundreds of miles away, in his Toronto apartment, Voshart, a then-28-year-old cinematographer who had recently been toying with video stabilization, thought he could unravel the mystery of the Taser and help get Slager indicted. [...] By then, Voshart had made the footage so clear that as Slager reached to unholster his gun, Scott could be seen holding what looked like Slager's Taser—potentially enough to make Slager fear for his life and maybe meet the grounds needed to use lethal force.