Remember the bystander video, taken after Walter Scott was stopped by police for having a burnt out taillight bulb? It circulated on the news and social media, showing Mr. Scott’s feeble jog away from the police officer, and Officer Michael Slager firing eight shots at Mr. Scott’s back. At the recent criminal trial against Officer Slager, the jury did not convict him of any crime, unable to reach a unanimous verdict. I thought that I could not be stunned by yet another failure to hold a police officer accountable for the unlawful killing of a black man, and yet I am – stunned and demoralized. I keep thinking about that hung jury, trying to understand how shooting a man multiple times in the back can not be a crime. In addition to being a grave miscarriage of justice, this non-verdict seems to epitomize many of the problems we face as a nation right now.
First, the Slager trial illustrates our culture’s rejection of the importance of truth. In Mr. Scott’s shooting, we have concrete, slam-dunk evidence showing what happened. There’s the video that shows Mr. Scott’s plodding effort to flee and Officer Slager shooting him repeatedly in the back from 17 feet away. There is also direct proof that Officer Slager lied about the circumstances of the shooting. Before he knew of the bystander’s video, Slager claimed that Scott tried to grab his stun gun, so Slager opened fire in self-defense. The video, however, not only shows that claim to be false, it shows the officer walking over to Scott after the shooting and dropping a planted stun gun on him, to set up the intended lie. It is hard to fathom what more the jury could have wanted as proof of what truly occurred.
Yet, for at least one of the Slager jurors, the truth simply did not matter. The jury couldn’t even reach the compromise verdict of voluntary manslaughter, which is shooting someone in the heat of passion. A holdout juror sent a note to the judge saying he could not “with good conscience approve a guilty verdict” and nothing was going to change his mind. To be clear, this wasn’t a case of questionable evidence – this was a case of at least one juror simply wanting to be on the side of the police, despite the egregious direct evidence that the officer shot a man in cold blood and lied about why he did it.
A Gallup poll from this summer showed that society’s confidence in the police vastly exceeds confidence in almost any other institution. This extreme deference to police even in the face of racially motivated killings suggests that the need to trust the police officer eclipsed the truth. Sounds like so many other things happening in our country now, right?
The Slager trial also inescapably highlights our country’s struggle with the issue of race and its devaluing the lives of African Americans. Although North Charleston is 47% black, 11 out of 12 of the jurors were white. That’s not a coincidence. We’ve written here before about how prosecutors in some parts of the country intentionally exclude black people from juries, trying to obtain all white juries, and how hard it is to get the courts to do anything about the blatant discrimination. That is outrageous and wrong, but it still does not explain the non-verdict.
How is it that by not having a representative number of black people on the jury, a white person could conclude that it is not murder for a police officer to shoot a fleeing taillight offender in the back? How can anyone watch that video (above) and conclude that the officer did not commit a criminal act against Mr. Scott? To my mind, there is no way to reconcile recognition of Mr. Scott’s humanity and the conclusion that Officer Slager committed no crime. And thus, I can only conclude that the non-verdict occurred due to at least one juror’s failure to recognize Mr. Scott’s humanity. That is the legacy of generations of racism in our country.
The State of South Carolina will re-try Officer Slager. But there is still much we should learn from the mistrial. Our country has problems with truth and with racial equality, and both are interfering with the fairness of the criminal justice system.