A video viewed by millions shows a white policeman fatally shooting a fleeing, unarmed black man. But it’s not a slam dunk, warns a black lawyers group. There are legal scenarios in which full justice could elude the victim, Walter Scott, and his family.
That’s why Black Lawyers for Justice, the group that brought a $40 million lawsuit against the Ferguson and St. Louis, Mo., police departments, is calling for a special prosecutor to oversee the North Charleston, S.C., case involving Scott.
Hassane Muhammad, the chief operating officer for the Washington, D.C.-based organization, told The Root that BLFJ often investigates cases and finds that the prosecutor and police chief are allies. “We feel that an outside prosecutor would be fairer and more just than a local prosecutor,” she said.
What could possibly go wrong in the North Charleston case? Muhammad points to prosecutorial discretion. She explained that the justice system grants prosecutors the right to evaluate all evidence—a process that often lacks transparency—and decide the charges. After weighing facts, the prosecutor then has the option of upgrading or downgrading the initial charges. That means it’s possible that the current murder charge against now-former Police Officer Michael Slager could be reduced to manslaughter.
In another scenario, the prosecutor could charge Slager with a more serious crime than could be proved in court—for example, a first-degree-murder charge when the evidence obviously supports manslaughter. “In that scenario, a prosecutor is practically giving the accused person a free ticket [out of jail],” Muhammad explained.
The organization, which Muhammad said consists of “activist lawyers,” is conducting its own investigation. BLFJ is working with the Charleston, S.C., chapter of the NAACP, Black Lives Matter and other local civil rights groups. The scope of its investigation will include interviewing Scott’s family and Feiden Santana, the lone witness, as well as reviewing police records and statements. The group is also exploring the possibility of there being a pattern of use of excessive force by Slager.
“A lot of people are coming to our website and telling us about their police interactions,” she said, “and what we’re seeing is a pattern and practice of police brutality going on in Charleston.”
BLFJ applauds North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers for taking quick action against Slager. But they had no choice, Muhammad quickly pointed out. “Would this have happened without the video?” she asked. “Absolutely not.”
The organization is reserving its final judgment about local authorities until the conclusion of the case. “We’ve been faked out before,” she said.
In the meantime, BLFJ has joined forces with other activists on the ground to keep up the pressure. The organization’s president, Malik Shabazz, spoke last Monday at a rally in North Charleston.
“It may be a crime to block a highway; it may be a crime to disturb a restaurant; it may be a crime to do these things that shake people’s comfort,” he said, with a dramatic pause. “But it’s time to shake it.”
Shabazz will lead a panel discussion, “Policing, Race and Injustice in South Carolina,” on April 19 in Charleston. The panel will also include Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott, state Rep. David Mack of Charleston and several community leaders.
“The black community is in peril right now,” Muhammad emphasized. “There’s a lack of organization and a lack of justice in general. We’re not pussyfooting around about the fact that we’re being hunted down. Every day we wake up to more killings in our communities.”
Nigel Roberts is a New York City-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter.