COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Attorneys for the white former South Carolina officer charged with killing a black motorist argue his insurer wrongly dumped his defense before seeing what they described as an FBI enhancement of a bystander's video of the shooting.
The cellphone recording of the death of motorist Walter Scott helped fuel national debate about the treatment of African-Americans by white police officers. The iPhone video captured former North Charleston officer Michael Slager firing eight times as Scott ran away from him after a traffic stop in April 2015.
After the video went viral, Slager was swiftly fired and charged with murder, then dropped by the Southern States Police Benevolent Association.
Attorneys for Slager contend in court filings this week that the association abandoned Slager in a "rush to judgment" four days after the shooting. Slager sued last November, accusing the insurer of failing to provide the legal representation he'd paid for under an insurance policy.
The company has asked a judge to dismiss the case, and a hearing is set for Aug. 25.
While Slager's attorneys stress this case is not about Slager's guilt or innocence, their response presents why they think his actions were defensible.
They claim a slow-motion enhancement shows the two men wrestling on the ground as Scott tried to take the officer's Taser, and that's when Slager decided to draw his weapon.
However, in the video they released, no Taser is apparent during the confrontation. Blurry images appear to momentarily show Scott, visible by his green t-shirt, on top of Slager.
The FBI directed questions about the video to the Department of Justice, which declined to comment.
"The decision was made to use deadly force as he had been trained to do consistent with Officer Slager's training," reads the memo filed Wednesday by attorneys Ronald Richter and Eric Bland.
In quickly dumping Slager, the association "decided the very issue that it was contractually bound to defend," the memo continues. "This issue in this case is not whether Michael Slager is guilty or innocent of a crime. The issue is whether it was right or wrong for the PBA to abandon him. It was wrong."
The company has said it denied benefits because Slager intentionally planted evidence and lied about the shooting.
"Mr. Slager's shooting an unarmed Mr. Scott five times in the back as he fled, planting the Taser behind Mr. Scott's body, and lying to the PBA and (the State Law Enforcement Division) are intentional acts outside the scope of Mr. Slager's duty as a police officer," the association's attorney, James Bradley of West Columbia, argued in filings last month.
Bradley did not return messages Friday.
The association faces a separate lawsuit filed last week in state court. It seeks class-action status and the return of monthly dues, averaging $23.50, paid by 42,000 officers across nine states. The plaintiff is a Charleston County deputy. Slager is not named.
But Richter, an attorney for both, said Wednesday "many law enforcement officers were not happy with the PBA's decision not to afford coverage to Michael Slager."
Slager is scheduled to appear back in federal court later this month.
A pre-trial conference on civil rights charges brought against him, initially set for Friday, has been rescheduled for Aug. 30. U.S. District Judge David Norton is presiding over hearings for both the civil lawsuit and federal charges.
Slager faces a murder charge in state court. Trial is set to begin in October.
The federal indictment charges that Slager, while acting as a law officer, deprived 50-year-old Scott of his civil rights. A second count says he used a weapon, a Glock Model 21 .45-caliber pistol, while doing so.
The third count, charging obstruction of justice, alleges Slager intentionally misled state investigators about what happened during the encounter with Scott.
Conviction on all counts could bring a life sentence plus 30 years and a $750,000 fine. The civil rights charge can carry the death penalty, but federal prosecutors have said they are seeking life because there were no aggravating circumstances in the case.
Last fall, the city of North Charleston approved a $6.5 million civil settlement with Scott's family.
Slager was released on $500,000 bond in January and has been under house arrest at an undisclosed location.