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What Defense Will Walter Scott's Killer Use at His Trial?

Michael Slager was caught on video shooting unarmed black man Walter Scott as he fled. Here's what the ex-cop's lawyers are doing to try to spare him serious prison time.
October 31, 2016, 7:30pm
Former North Charleston officer Michael Slager is led into court for a bond hearing at the Charleston County Court House September 10, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Grace Beahm-Pool/Getty Images)

One morning last April, a South Carolina police officer named Michael Slager pulled over a Mercedes with a busted brake light. Walter Scott, the 50-year-old forklift operator driving the car, quickly took off on foot. Millions have watched cellphone footage of what happened next: Slager fired into Scott's back eight times as he ran away, killing him.

Slager was fired and arrested on murder charges that same month, and jury selection for his murder trial finally began Monday. There is, of course, plenty of precedent for white cops getting away with killing unarmed black men in America. But this case—even more than the Samuel Dubose police killing going to jury selection in Ohio this week—seems pretty cut-and-dried. Slager shot an unarmed man in the back, over and over again, as he fled, and the shooting was captured with video evidence. What could the former cop's lawyers possibly say to convince a jury this wasn't murder?

A series of motions recently filed by Slager's defense team—which did not respond to a request for comment for this story—offers some insight. For starters, as the Associated Press reported, the attorneys asked that the jury not be made aware of the civil settlement the city paid out to Scott's family—some $6.5 million—or of the fact that the ex-officer faces federal civil rights charges in a case that's set to begin next year.

The defense has also asked that the jury not be sequestered because the lawyers fear taking people away from friends and family over a long period of time might make them resentful toward the trial process—and the defendant in particular. (The prosecution might counter that a lengthy period of isolation didn't seem to hurt OJ Simpson, whose 1995 not-guilty murder verdict came after the longest jury sequestration in California history.)

But perhaps the most illuminating defense motion was the one asking that the legal system be brought outside the courthouse. Essentially, the defense wants to take the jurors on a field trip to see where the incident took place, which could be key to bolstering Slager's version of events: that Scott attacked him and even tried to use the cop's taser against him. (Scott's DNA was, in fact, reportedly found on the device, though Slager picking it up, moving it closer to the dead body, and then re-holstering it—as seen on the cellphone video—raises a whole bunch of other questions.)

Eric A. Johnson, a professor of criminal procedure and evidence at the University of Illinois law School, says the technical term for jurors checking out a crime scene is a "jury visit." Typically, he said, the visits are silent and the jurors do not speak to one another. It's unlikely that there would be any sort of demonstration or reenactment of the shooting, he added.

Johnson went on to note that it's unclear what the defense attorneys hope to gain from the visit, since the video itself is pretty clear in showing the scene and the distance between Slager and Scott when the shots were fired. The judge would have to determine if the visit's potential usefulness to the defense outweighed the risk of a reversible error—that is, some event or development that might bias the jury and force a mistrial.

"You'd also want to make sure there weren't protestors milling around the scene, shouting things to jurors," Johnson told me. "So judges are going to try and execute a lot of control over the jury view if it happens."

But Colin Miller, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and expert on criminal procedure, says the trip is probably integral to the only strategy any reasonable attorney in this position would pursue––trying to show that some kind of altercation happened before the shooting, even if it didn't go viral.

It's unclear what, exactly, at the scene might serve to illustrate such a struggle. But inserting even a hint of reasonable doubt is "pretty much all they can do," Miller said, to possibly spare Slager of the 30 years to life sentence he faces if convicted.

"It's always possible something could come out," he told me. "But a guilty verdict seems a near certainty."

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