The murder trial of Michael Slager, the ex-North Charleston police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott on April 4, 2015, began Thursday morning amid ongoing national concern over police brutality.
In the first weeks, controversy has already arisen. A jury of 11 white people and one black man was selected to decide the fate of the white former officer who killed Walter Scott, a black man.
Some consider that a problem.
Lead defense attorney Andy Savage argued that accurate opinions of North Charlestonians would not be accurately represented by the racially unbalanced jury. He also argued to The Post and Courier that the earlier court sessions in the case should have been open to the public.
The process for selecting the jurors unfolded in private, as the presiding Circuit Judge Clifton Newman did not allow members of the media into the room until after the jury was decided. Court officials also disclosed that the steps of jury qualification and voir dire (specific questioning regarding potential biases) would happen in the open courtroom.
A past ruling by the federal appeals court which oversees South Carolina gives judges the option of closing voir dire to the media and public.
The Judicial Education Center at the University of New Mexico attests that using voir dire effectively can “work to identify jurors who can be fair and impartial, rather than unfair and biased.”
Many consider it a mistake to have had that important function of the trial closed to the public.
As The Post and Courier reports, although Newman has maintained that he is an advocate for open proceedings, he shut out the public from an important hearing less than two weeks before Slager’s trial began and ordered attorneys to file their motions under seal.
In a crucial portion of those court sessions, the potential jurors were asked if they had seen Feidin Santana’s video, captured by cell phone, of the interaction between Slager and Scott. Some jurors said they had not seen it. Slager’s defense team argued that showing Santana’s video in court would be unfair to the defendant.
The Post and Courier reports that Slager’s defense team has “expressed concerns about the difficulty of finding impartial jurors” among residents of North Charleston who have seen the video and have heard other accounts of the shooting.
— deray (@deray) November 2, 2016
Savage maintained that while race never played a role in Slager and Scott’s confrontation, members of the North Charleston black community (47 percent of its overall population) have reiterated their feelings of being targeted for minor stops by police.
For the remainder of the trial, the defense will focus on giving Slager’s actions a motive—Slager contends that Scott grabbed his taser, and without backup his only option was to reach for his pistol and shoot Scott five times in the back. The Post and Courier reports that Savage seeks to portray Slager’s murder charge as too harsh, arguing that, “It’s the most serious offense. It’s the same charge that Dylann Roof in the Emanuel case is charged with.”
While Savage asks for a lesser charge, Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson promised jurors the opposite effect in her opening statement. She argued that Slager’s action of shooting Scott in the back as he tried to run away may have been provoked, but was not justified.
“We are here,” Wilson said, “to bring accountability to Michael Slager for his actions.”
If convicted of murder, Slager faces 30 years to life in prison. He also faces trial in federal court next year on charges of violating Scott’s civil rights.