Mistrial declared in murder trial of South Carolina officer who killed an unarmed black man

The trial of a former South Carolina police officer accused of murdering an unarmed black motorist was declared a mistrial on Monday, after the judge confirmed the jury was unable to reach a verdict.

Michael Slager is facing a maximum of life in prison for his role in the 2015 killing of Walter Scott, whose death reignited a national debate about police violence against minorities. The jury was also allowed to consider a lesser charge of manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years.

The jury deliberated for more than 22 hours over the course of four days, but on Monday afternoon informed Judge Clifton Newman that they were unable to reach a consensus.

“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,” the jury said in a note to Newman.

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson did not comment on the outcome, but vowed to retry Slager in the future. However, there’s no indication that there is any evidence or testimony left to present. Over the course of the monthlong trial, jurors heard from 55 witnesses, and last week they visited the grassy vacant lot where the shooting took place. Newman called the 4-day deliberation period “the longest that I’ve ever been involved in.”

The decision came as a disappointment for the Scott family and prosecutors, who had argued throughout the trial that Slager showed evidence of malice during the incident that resulted in Scott’s death, a requirement for a murder charge. They repeatedly played the now-famous bystander video of the shooting for the jurors, showing the North Charleston patrolman shooting at Scott eight times as Scott ran away from the patrolman, hitting him with five bullets. By the time Slager, who is white, fired his first shot, Scott was about 17 feet away from him.

But Slager testified last week that before the bystander, Feidin Santana, started recording, Scott had wrested his Taser away and tried to use it on him, putting the officer in “total fear” for his safety. Santana denied Slager’s account.

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Michael Slager (R) is seen shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back as he runs away, in this still image from video in North Charleston, South Carolina taken April 4, 2015.
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Feidin Santana/handout via Reuters.

Meanwhile, Slager’s attorney, Andrew Savage, argued the media were trying to make Slager a scapegoat for other racially charged police killings across the country, referencing the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Sylville K. Smith in Milwaukee, and Eric Garner in New York City.

“What happens when the media does this is they mislead the public,” Savage said during his closing statement last week. “They have a narrative of what happened and because of what they’ve been told they have certain expectations.”

“This is not heat of passion,” he said, citing one of the criteria for manslaughter. “This is a law enforcement officer carrying out his duties.”

Prosecutors also accused Slager of attempting to stage the crime scene – after shooting Scott, Slager can be seen in the video picking up his Taser and dropping it closer to Scott’s lifeless, handcuffed body. Slager said he was following protocol by accounting for his weapons.

The 12 jurors – 11 of 12 of whom are white – periodically communicated to the judge through notes as they deliberated, and indicated on Friday they were having trouble reaching a consensus. After another round of deliberation, a juror admitted he was unwilling to declare Slager guilty.

“We all struggle with the death of a man and all that has been put before us. I still cannot without a reasonable doubt convict the defendant,” the juror wrote in the note to Newman. “At the same time, my heart does not want to have to tell the Scott family that the man that killed their son brother and father is innocent.”

“But with the choices, I cannot and will not change my mind.”

In a separate note, the the jury’s foreman seemed to indicate the jury was locked in an 11-1 split, with only the first note-writing juror opposing a guilty verdict. On Monday morning, the foreman clarified his comments, saying a majority of the jurors remained undecided.

Deliberations resumed after Newman provided the jury with definitions of relevant legal terms, including “imminent danger” and “self-defense.”

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People participate in a rally to protest the death of Walter Scott outside City Hall on April 8, 2015 in North Charleston, South Carolina.
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Richard Ellis/Getty Images

The incident began on April 4 of last year, when Slager, a North Charleston officer with five years of experience, pulled Scott over for a broken tail light. Dashcam video shows Scott exiting his vehicle and fleeing the scene – perhaps due to fear of his unpaid child support obligations, his family said. Slager pursued Scott on foot, leading them to the scene of the shooting.

Slager was fired from the department days later, when Santana’s video appeared to contradict the officer’s account of the fatal confrontation.

Scott’s death sparked outrage and protest in North Charleston, where whites make up just 37% of the population, but nearly 80% of the police department, according to The New York Times, citing Justice Department data. The tension was exacerbated two months later, when self-professed white supremacist Dylann Roof allegedly gunned down nine black worshippers in a church in nearby Charleston. Jury selection for that trial is underway.

Last week, local authorities and community advocates urged residents to remain calm as the trial came to a close.

Slager has also been indicted on three federal charges: violating Scott’s civil rights, unlawfully using his weapon in the commission of a crime, and obstruction of justice. No date has been set for that trial.

Slager acknowledged during his emotional testimony that he could have handled the incident better.

“Going back 18 months later and looking at everything, things could have been different,” he said. “My family has been destroyed by this. The Scott family has been destroyed by this. It’s horrible,” he added later.