The murder trial of a white former North Charleston, S.C., police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man in the back as he fled a traffic stop ended in a mistrial Monday after a deadlocked jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.
“We as a jury regret to inform the court that despite the best efforts of all members we are unable to come to a unanimous decision,” the jury wrote in a note to a judge Monday afternoon after about 22 hours of deliberation.
The jury’s long, protracted struggle to reach consensus over Michael Slager’s April 2015 shooting of Walter Scott underscores the challenge prosecutors face in convicting on-duty police officers who kill civilians.
Though guilty verdicts are rare in police shootings, many believed Scott’s was an open-and-shut case of an officer killing a black man without cause. A video captured by a bystander appeared to show Slager shooting Scott in the back as he ran at least 17 feet ahead of the officer. That video prompted Slager’s then-defense attorney to resign.
“Today I’m not sad,” Judy Scott, Walter’s mother, told reporters as she clutched a crumpled tissue in her hand outside the courthouse. Soon enough, she said, there would be another trial against the man who shot her son.
“Injustice will not prevail,” she said. “It’s not over, y’all hear me? It’s not over till God say it’s over.”
It is the second time in less than a month that a judge has declared a mistrial after a jury has been unable to reach consensus on a police shooting. On Nov. 12, a judge in Ohio declared a mistrial after a jury failed to reach agreement on the case of a white former University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing, charged with murder in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black motorist, Sam DuBose.
On Friday, the jury foreman in the Charleston case had suggested the jury was “hopelessly deadlocked,” with one juror refusing to convict. After taking a break over the weekend, the jury indicated Monday morning that the majority had still not made up its minds whether to convict or acquit Slager.
Slager’s legal battles are not over. State prosecutors have already said they will retry the case, and he also faces separate charges in federal district court of violating Scott’s civil rights, using a weapon during the commission of a civil rights offense, and obstruction of justice. If convicted of a civil rights violation, he could face life in prison.
Prosecutors had charged Slager, 35, with murder, which carries a prison penalty of 30 years to life, but last week Judge Clifton Newman allowed jurors to consider the lesser charge of manslaughter, which involves two to 30 years in prison.
On Monday morning, the jury appeared stuck, sending a note to Newman with a flurry of questions: Why was voluntary manslaughter offered in addition to murder? What is meant by “sufficient legal provocation,” “imminent danger” and “aforethought?” Does self-defense apply equally to a police officer and a regular civilian?
Defense attorney Andrew Savage called for a mistrial, arguing that one juror had already indicated he would not convict. He noted that the jury’s most recent note was not written by the jury foreman — although it was signed by him — and raised the possibility that the foreman might be preventing all members of the jury from having their say.
Yet Newman ruled against a mistrial, stating that the court was obligated to answer questions posed by the jury during deliberations — unless the answers might be inappropriate.
“Importantly, the note … doesn’t say the jury is deadlocked,” the judge said before asking attorneys to craft responses to jurors’ questions. “It says they are undecided and that’s what deliberations are all about — getting an undecided jury to decide.”
One of a string of police killings of African Americans that inspired mass street protests and a national debate on racism and policing, the Scott shooting was seen as a significant test case in whether seemingly compelling video evidence could lead to a guilty verdict.
During the month-long South Carolina trial, prosecutors argued that Slager fired eight shots at Scott, 50, out of malice, ill will and total disregard for human life. They added that video evidence showed Slager staging evidence after the killing, dropping his Taser next to Scott’s body so he could claim Scott had taken the stun gun.
Slager’s legal team countered that Slager shot Scott in self-defense. Last week, Slager testified he pulled Scott over for a broken tail light, and returned to his police cruiser to write up a warning ticket. Suddenly, Scott fled from his vehicle, Slager pursued, and the two men became involved in a physical fight. Slager said he was left in “total fear” after Scott grabbed his Taser and pointed it at him.
Not long after the jury began deliberating, there were signs it was struggling over the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. On Thursday, jurors asked the judge to explain the difference between fear and passion. While Slager’s defense hinged on his fear for his life when he fired at Scott, the voluntary manslaughter charge involves killing in the heat of passion.
On Friday, Newman read notes that appeared to indicate a lone juror refused to convict.
“We all struggle with the death of a man and with all that has been put before us,” one juror wrote in a long note that the judge read to the courtroom. “I still cannot, without a reasonable doubt, convict the defendant.”
A separate note from the jury foreman indicated that one juror had “issues” and “needs to leave."
Newman urged jurors to return to their deliberations: “The majority should consider the minority’s position, and the minority should consider the majority’s position,” he told them.
By the end of the day, the foreman reported they were “hopelessly” deadlocked. A few moments later, however, jurors suggested that further explanation of the law might lead to a unanimous verdict and agreed to continue deliberating Monday.
Jarvie is a special correspondent.
4:36 p.m.: This story was updated with family reaction and a decision by prosecutors to retry the case.
1:05 p.m.: This story was updated with the trial ending in a mistrial.
The story was originally published at 11:15 a.m.