Updated, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, 2 p.m. EST: One juror in the Walter Scott murder trial apparently refuses to vote for a guilty verdict, thereby deadlocking the jury in the high-profile murder case.
The juror, identified only as a 50-year-old male, told the judge Friday that he could not “with good conscience approve a guilty verdict" against Michael Slager, the 35-year-old ex cop accused of murder in the death of Scott. Said juror also added that he was not about to change his mind, according to the Associated Press.
The panel of one black and 11 white jurors has now deliberated for more than 16 hours over three days on whether to convict the former North Charleston police officer in the April 2015 death.
After Judge Clifton Newman informed the court of a note from the jurors Friday saying that they were “beat,” lawyers for Slager requested a mistrial.
Jurors are considering the charge of murder, which could carry a sentence of 30 years to life in prison, and a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, which carries a sentence of two to five years. The judge ordered jurors to return to the jury room Monday. If the jury cannot reach a verdict, a mistrial will be declared.
Jurors in the trial of a white former North Charleston, S.C., police officer charged with the murder of an unarmed black motorist during a traffic stop have been unable to choose between two charges: murder and voluntary manslaughter.
As previously reported on The Root, Michael Slager, 35, is on trial for the April 2015 shooting death of 50-year-old Walter Scott. Scott was running from a traffic stop in North Charleston when Slager shot him five times in the back. In addition to the state murder charge, Slager faces three federal charges, including a civil rights violation.
The prosecution asked the judge to include an option for Slager to be charged with voluntary manslaughter, and although the defense objected, the judge agreed.
The case was turned over to the jury Wednesday evening, and deliberations have gone on for more than 14 hours over the last three days.
In her closing arguments on Wednesday, prosecutor Scarlett Wilson described the difference between murder and manslaughter. Murder, she said, involves malice, which “has to be in the mind before the shots are fired.” Wilson said that malice is a feeling and an emotion, whereas voluntary manslaughter “is an unlawful killing in the heat of passion.”
Wilson also educated the jury on the concept of reasonable doubt.
“There are a lot of things that ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ does not mean,” Wilson said. “The judge will give you an instruction, and you’ll see that it’s the kind of doubt that makes you hesitant to act.
“It means that it’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt when we have proven our case, not beyond every doubt, not beyond a shadow of a doubt, but a reasonable doubt,” Wilson said.
Wilson said that reason is used because “it’s almost impossible to prove things beyond all doubt 100 percent,” and to look at reasonable doubt as proof that leaves them “firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt.”
In his instructions to the jury, Judge Clifton Newman explained the elements of self-defense and reasonable use of force by a police officer making an arrest. He also explained how a claim of self-defense could prompt an acquittal.
"The defendant does not have to show that he was actually in danger," his instructions stated. "It is enough if the defendant believed he was in imminent danger and a reasonably prudent person of ordinary firmness and courage would have had the same belief."
The Post and Courier reports that on Thursday, nine hours into their deliberations, jurors asked Newman to explain the difference between “fear” and “passion.” Passion is the central element for manslaughter under South Carolina law.
Chad Simpson, one of four members of the prosecution team, suggested that fear and passion are synonymous. He cited a 2010 ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court that “where there is an intentional killing based on fear alone, a defendant should be entitled to a voluntary manslaughter charge,” but according to the Post and Courier, that same ruling cautioned courts not to blend the elements of manslaughter and self defense.
The judge refused to answer the question, saying it was something that only the jurors could decide. Newman said that the question was so entwined with the issue at hand that answering it would amount to revising the jury’s deliberation instructions.
In order for Slager to be found guilty of manslaughter, he would have had to be provoked into shooting Scott “in the heat of passion,” or an emotion that bubbled to the surface during his confrontation with Scott, driving him to uncontrollably pull the trigger.
The Post and Courier notes that a successful self-defense argument could defeat both allegations. Slager testified that he was in total fear for his life after Scott grabbed his Taser and tried to use it against him. He said he shot Scott until that threat subsided.
Prosecutors had to prove that Slager’s fear of imminent danger wasn’t reasonable in order to overcome his self-defense claim.
Charlie Condon, a South Carolina attorney and former state attorney general, has been following the case closely, and he told the Post and Courier that the jury’s question was a fair one to ask.
“They’re focusing in on the manslaughter possibility, but they’re unclear, if they accept [Slager’s] testimony that he was in fear, whether that qualifies as passion,” Condon said.
The jury also asked to read testimony from Slager and a state agent who interviewed him after the shooting. While normally jurors must rely on their memory or their notes about witness testimony, with over 55 witnesses having testified in the trial, the attorneys and the judge agreed to have the transcripts readied for them.
The prosecution’s case for a murder charge against Slager hinges heavily on proving malice. Slager shooting Scott in the back as he ran away was cited as key evidence of malice in the case.
Slager testified that when he pulled his pistol from the holster, he and Scott were still standing face-to-face and touching. The Post and Courier reports that it took him 1.5 seconds to pull the gun out and fire. Five of the eight shots hit their mark, and Scott died at the scene.
As previously reported by The Root, prosecutor Bruce DuRant had Slager come out of the witness box and stretched a measuring tape 18 feet out to show the distance between Slager and Scott when the first gunshot was fired. Slager said he had a “different perception” of the distance.
“That decision was made when Mr. Scott was 27 inches away, toe-to-toe,” Slager said. “At that point, I made the decision to use lethal force. He was still dangerous.”
The prosecution also had Slager read the North Charleston Police Department’s policy that allows lethal force to be used against a “fleeing felon” only if he or she poses “an immediate threat to human life.”
“Protection of life must take priority over apprehension of criminals,” Slager read.
The jury sent a message to the judge at 1 p.m. Friday asking to hear the testimony of the man who took the cellphone video that led to Slager’s arrest for the murder of Scott. Shortly after that, the jury sent a message to the judge saying that they could not agree on a verdict.
The judge told the jury they needed to try again to reach a verdict.
The jury has to agree unanimously on murder, voluntary manslaughter or an acquittal; if they are unable to do so, the jury will be hung, and a mistrial will be declared. If a mistrial occurs, it will be up to the prosecution to decide whether or not to proceed with another trial.
If convicted of murder, Slager will face a sentence of 30 years to life in prison. If convicted of manslaughter, he faces a sentence of two to 30 years.
The jury will resume deliberations Monday morning, but the likelihood that we will see the type of justice we are looking for is slim to none in a situation where, given the option of a voluntary manslaughter charge, one juror still seems convinced that Slager should not be convicted at all.