Church shootings put spotlight on South Carolina prosecutor again

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 19, 2015 6:08 PM

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - For the second time in two weeks, South Carolina prosecutor Scarlett Wilson finds herself at the center of a racially charged murder case generating national headlines, after the shooting of nine black men and women at a historic church in Charleston.

Wilson will prosecute Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man accused of shooting black worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night.

Wilson is already leading the prosecution of white former police officer Michael Slager for the fatal April 4 shooting of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott in nearby North Charleston; she announced an indictment in the case on June 8. The shooting, captured on video by a bystander, was among a series of police killings of unarmed black men that prompted protests across the country.

At a news conference on Friday following Roof’s initial court appearance, Wilson vowed to “bring justice for this community and especially for the victims.”

“While there may be nine victims, we are one family, make no mistake about that,” said the prosecutor, who is white.

Wilson declined to speak in detail about the case, citing prosecutorial ethics rules.

The Republican is the first woman to serve as the top prosecutor, known as a solicitor, for Charleston and Berkeley counties,

She had previously received criticism from some black leaders for failing to bring charges in two other fatal cases involving white police officers and black men.

In April, those leaders called for a special prosecutor to be appointed to consider whether to charge Slager for shooting Scott in the back as he ran from a traffic stop.

Several black leaders said the indictment announced on June 8 did not do enough to assuage concerns among their constituents about Wilson, since the video showed what had really happened.

"Her name does not bring up great, unbridled enthusiasm in the black community," said the Rev. Joseph Darby, vice president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's oldest civil rights organization.

But the leaders said they had no specific problem with Wilson leading the Roof prosecution.

Miller Shealy, a professor at the Charleston School of Law who worked with Wilson as a federal prosecutor, said she has an “excellent reputation” as a fair and capable trial attorney.

“I have the highest regard for her,” he said. “She has two hot potatoes on her plate.”

At Friday’s news conference, Wilson said she received a call a few weeks ago from the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a prominent state senator who was one of the victims in the church shooting. The call was presumably about the Scott case, although Wilson did not offer the context.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry I haven’t reached out before now,’” she said. “But I want you to know that we are with you.”

Wilson, a native of Hemingway, South Carolina, graduated from Clemson University and the University of South Carolina’s law school.

She worked as a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s office for South Carolina from 1995 to 2001 before becoming the chief deputy solicitor for the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, which prosecutes cases in Charleston and Berkeley counties.

In 2007, she was appointed as solicitor after her predecessor died. She has since been elected to two four-year terms.

(Editing by Ted Botha and Jonathan Oatis)