South Carolina Police Who Shot Walter Scott Indicted On Murder Charge

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Jun 08, 2015 3:00 PM
South Carolina Police Who Shot Walter Scott Indicted On Murder Charge

Former North Charleston police officer Michael T. Slager has been indicted for murder in the shooting death of Walter Scott. Slager was videotaped shooting Scott several times in the back on April 4. Scott had been pulled over by Slager for a broken taillight. Scott had been arrested dozens of times, usually for skipping child support payments and missing court dates, according to the New York Times

A former police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was indicted by a grand jury on a murder charge on Monday in connection with the April 4 shooting death of Walter L. Scott, which was recorded by a passer-by and became a resonating symbol in the national debate about police behavior.

The former officer, Michael T. Slager, had been jailed on a murder charge since April 7, when the video became public. Mr. Slager’s lawyers have so far made no request for bail, and his indictment in Charleston County had been widely expected. The North Charleston Police Department fired him after the shooting, which city officials criticized in stark and unsparing terms.

Despite the intensive publicity surrounding the shooting, Scarlett A. Wilson, the local prosecutor, said Monday that she believed a local jury could be impaneled

“I feel sure the people of Charleston County can decide this case,” she said.

The fatal encounter on April 4 began when Mr. Slager, who is white, stopped Mr. Scott, who is black, for a broken taillight while he was driving in North Charleston, South Carolina’s third-largest city. A dashboard camera in Mr. Slager’s patrol car recorded the first minutes of the stop, and the video showed a mostly routine interaction between a driver and an officer.

But Mr. Scott soon fled on foot — his family believes that he ran because of outstanding child-support obligations that he feared would lead to his arrest — and Mr. Slager gave chase. Once the officer caught up with Mr. Scott, there was apparently a tussle over the officer’s Taser.

As I wrote before, skipping on child support payments isn’t necessarily a charge that invokes “serious physical harm,” yet if it could be established that a fight over Slager’s taser did occur; then the Garner statue is satisfied, according to George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. In the 1985 Tennessee v. Garner case, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers are justified in shooting unarmed suspects if that officer feels there’s probable cause that the suspect’s escape could endanger the general public and other police officers.

Via Justice Byron White [bold text indicated White’s opinion]:

...[T]he case revolved around two Memphis police officers, Elton Hymon and Leslie Wright, responded to a burglary call at 10:45pm on October 3, 1974. Upon entering the house in question, the encountered 15-year-old Edward Garner, who officers thought was 17 or 18, who fled the scene. Officer Hymon couldn’t tell for certain, but was “reasonably sure” that Garner was unarmed when he saw him using his flashlight.

While Garner tried to climb over a fence, the Officer Hymon identified himself as law enforcement and told him to “halt.” Garner did not heed the call. Hymon, convinced Garner “would elude capture,” fired a shot, hitting him in the back of the head. He later died. Garner’s father brought lawsuits before the court citing his son’s constitutional rights were violated. The Tennessee statue that Hymon invoked reads "[i]f, after notice of the intention to arrest the defendant, he either flee or forcibly resist, the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest."

Justice White wrote:

The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable. It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape. Where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so. It is no doubt unfortunate when a suspect who is in sight escapes, but the fact that the police arrive a little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the suspect. A police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead. The Tennessee statute is unconstitutional insofar as it authorizes the use of deadly force against such fleeing suspects.

It is not, however, unconstitutional on its face. Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force. Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning has been given. As applied in such circumstances, the Tennessee statute would pass constitutional muster.

We shall see if that standard is argued as a trial date is set.