Video captured former Officer Michael Slager firing deadly shots at into Walter Scott’s back as he ran away in North Charleston, South Carolina. And now, Slager will likely face a murder trial for his actions.
A grand jury took the rare step of opting to indict Slager for murder, officials announced Monday. While grand juries indict the vast majority of defendants brought before them, it is incredibly rare that they indict officers in police brutality cases.
But Slager’s case was distinct from so many others in that a narrative initially painted in his favor flipped against him, after video revealed that he had misrepresented what happened that day and aimed to skew the case in his favor. The initial statement from police said Scott was attempting to grab a Taser from the officers, and that the shooting occurred in the struggle for a weapon. Media outlets initially reported this version of events. But video released later revealed that Scott was actually shot in the back as he was running away, unarmed, about 15 feet from Slager. The video appears to show Slager planting an object next to Scott. Many believe Scott was running because he owed child support money.
As the Atlantic reported, after the video was released, Slager retained little of the same support other officers had received even in the cases deemed most clearly egregious. Slager was fired. Police Chief Eddie Driggers said he was “sickened by what he saw.” And even the popular crowdfunding site GoFundMe that rejected a campaign to support the officer.
And Solicitor Scarlett Wilson moved quickly to file murder charges against Slager. Black leaders were wary, and called for Wilson to recuse himself from the case in favor of an independent prosecutor, because of a perceived unwillingness for her to prosecute similar cases in the past. Local prosecutors are typically perceived as carrying a bias in favor of their own police. But Monday’s grand jury indictment suggests this case has already had more success than most.
While the video provided more objective evidence to the Charleston County grand jury, similar evidence in Eric Garner’s case was not enough to secure a grand jury indictment for a fatal chokehold by New York Police Department officers.
In fact, over the past year, South Carolina has shown particular willingness to hold police officers accountable when they shoot suspects under dubious circumstances. Just after grand juries elsewhere failed to indict the officers implicated in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a South Carolina grand jury indicted a white cop for shooting a black man. That indictment in December was at least the third of a police officer in the state last year.
The announcement comes just a few weeks after a grand jury also decided to indict six Baltimore officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray over a spinal cord injury. The prosecutor in that case, Marilyn Mosby, distinguished herself as a strong proponent of police accountability.
Thus far, however, these cases appear to remain anomalies. One Bowling Green University study found that just 41 officers were charged in all with murder or manslaughter in a seven-year period ending in 2011, while 2,600 justifiable homicides were reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation during that same period.