A South Carolina judge declared a mistrial Monday in the Walter Scott case after jurors were unable to agree on whether Michael Slager, a white ex–police officer, should be convicted of murder or manslaughter in connection with the April 2015 shooting death of Scott, a 50-year-old unarmed black man.
Tensions in the case have been mounting since Friday, when the jury reported a deadlock that reportedly revolved around a juror who submitted a note saying he could not “with good conscience” convict Slager. Earlier Monday, the Charleston Post and Courier reported that the jury had shifted from a deadlock — suggesting the members had firm but conflicting views on what Slager’s fate should be — to indecision, meaning they were less sure of their convictions.
“This doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Philip Stinson, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University and former police officer who collects data on how often police are charged with crimes and acts of violence. “It’s very hard to get a conviction. Jurors want to give the officers the benefit of the doubt. Policing is ugly and violent; they carry guns and sometimes they have to use them.”
A mistrial means that the state prosecution team can retry Slager, and Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson released a statement expressing her intention to do just that. “I cannot overstate our disappointment that this case was not resolved,” Wilson said. “We will try Michael Slager again.”
The former North Charleston police officer is also facing federal civil rights charges; that trial is slated for next year. He will face weapons charges for commission of a civil rights offense along with obstruction of justice charges.
“We have federal laws that provide a criminal remedy for where states fail to successfully prosecute a public official, usually a police officer,” Stinson said. “[Slager is] not off the hook yet. He may have another state trial, but it’s more likely he’ll be convicted on the federal weapons offense.”
Before the state trial began, there was controversy surrounding the racial composition of the jury. Civil rights groups, including the NAACP, released a statement decrying the makeup of the jury, which comprised 11 white jurors and one black juror.
The black member of the jury served as its foreman, and on Friday wrote to the judge, “It’s just one juror that has the issues…. That juror needs to leave.”
The jury had been deliberating the case since Wednesday, but took a break over the weekend. Judge Clifton Newman had initially refused to grant a mistrial on Monday and was pressing the jury to reach a verdict.
The jury was tasked with deciding whether to acquit Slager, to charge him with murder, or to charge him with voluntary manslaughter. The charge of manslaughter, which carries a sentence of two to 39 years, was offered as an option by Newman on Wednesday. A charge of murder in the state of South Carolina could mean 30 years to life in prison.
Footage of the shooting, which was captured on cellphone video by a bystander, sent shockwaves across the nation. “If there was ever going to be a conviction based on video evidence, this is the case,” Stinson said. “I saw a police officer execute a man by shooting him in the back.”
After Slager pulled Scott over for a traffic stop, Scott fled on foot and Slager pursued. The video appears to show the end of a brief scuffle before Scott again started to run. Slager shot eight times, hitting Scott with five of the bullets. The officer radioed for backup while walking toward Scott, whom he handcuffed while the wounded man was lying on the ground. Slager also appeared to drop an object by Scott’s body; the officer claimed that Scott had taken his Taser.