Mistrial in 'open and shut' police shooting stuns observers

AP News
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Posted: Dec 07, 2016 2:45 AM
Mistrial in 'open and shut' police shooting stuns observers

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The video was unambiguous: A white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man in the back as the man ran away.

But a South Carolina jury was unable to agree on a verdict in one of the nation's ghastliest police shootings, with a lone holdout forcing a mistrial. The outcome stung many African-Americans and others. If that kind of evidence can't produce a conviction, they asked, what can?

"There's a jury full of people and they cannot decide if it's illegal to shoot someone who is running away from you?" said activist Johnetta Elzie, who is black. "What do you say about a country that feels this way about black people? If you can't see the humanity in that, I don't know what we're talking about anymore."

Prosecutors plan to retry former officer Michael Slager, who is scheduled to be tried separately next year on federal charges that he violated Walter Scott's civil rights.

North Charleston city officials approved a $6.5 million civil settlement for Scott's family earlier this year. Slager remains free on bail.

South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley voiced her support for Scott's family, saying in a statement that justice "is not always immediate, but we must all have faith that it will be served."

Scott, 50, was killed in April 2015 after he was shot five times. A barber on his way to work recorded the shooting on his cellphone.

The panel of 11 white jurors and one black juror deliberated for 22 hours. At one point, a juror sent a letter directly to the judge saying he could not "with good conscience approve a guilty verdict" and that he was unlikely to change his mind. As they weighed their decision, jurors also asked the judge to explain the legal difference between fear and passion and inquired whether the self-defense standard was the same for officers as ordinary citizens.

NAACP President Cornell Brooks called the jury's decision "a disappointing delay in the delivery of justice." Hours after the mistrial, a tweet from three Black Lives Matter co-founders said, "Some days the hashtag is too painful to participate in."

Elzie, one of the first protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a white officer, said word of the hung jury left her numb.

"When it comes to justice and black people in America, I don't expect it," she sighed.

Randall Kennedy, a black Harvard University law professor and author of several books on race relations, had difficulty reconciling the law with the mistrial, which he called "frightening."

"It appeared as though it was open and shut," said Kennedy, a native of Columbia, South Carolina. "Obviously, this is a case of some criminal action on the part of this police officer. Is it at all plausible that you have a man running and a police officer says, 'I'm firing in self-defense?'"

He added: "It's at this point that people are truly exasperated and say, 'Do we really have anything that can seriously be called the administration of criminal justice?' Can we reach people? Are people even persuadable?"

On the day after the mistrial, Charles Witherspoon sat in the main library in Columbia, reading the newspaper. He followed the trial closely and is well-versed in the facts of the case, like the 17 feet that separated Scott and the officer when he began firing at Scott.

Witherspoon, who is black, had no doubt Slager was guilty of murder, but the mistrial did not come as a surprise. It's an outcome the 54-year-old South Carolina native has come to expect.

"Murder is murder — unless you are a police officer," he said. "Someone is always going to find a way out for a police officer."

National Action Network South Carolina President James Johnson urged people to give the second trial a chance before they get angry. He said he heard rumors of people threatening to "burn" Charleston, but he does not think it will happen.

"I urge the people to let the justice system take its course. Let's wait on the next trial before we decide to do anything stupid. We've got to live here. We don't want people coming from outside of Charleston" to protest, said Johnson, who is black.

Kennedy said the retrial points to the belief that the initial result was wrong.

"It's a good thing that people are paying a lot of attention to this and that they are shocked," he said. "What will really be terrible is when something like this happens, and people are not shocked."

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Whack covers urban affairs for The Associated Press and reported from Philadelphia. Seanna Adcox in Charleston, South Carolina, contributed to this report.