‘I was scared’: Officer on trial for murder in shooting of unarmed black man testifies

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A former South Carolina police officer on trial for murder in the 2015 shooting death of an unarmed black man took the stand in his own defense Tuesday and said that he was in “total fear” for his life and that the shooting was justified.

The April 4, 2015, shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston intensified the nationwide debate over racial bias in policing. Michael Slager, who is white and faces 30 years to life in prison without the possibility of release, is one of a handful of defendants each year in officer-involved shooting deaths.

On the witness stand, Slager shared his account of the events that took place between him and Scott, and what led to his decision to use lethal force. He described the Saturday of the shooting as a normal day until the moment he pulled over Scott’s 1991 Mercedes-Benz for a nonfunctioning taillight.

Slager said that he told Scott to remain in his vehicle, but Scott bolted from the car. After chasing Scott down a nearby street and into an empty lot, Slager said he shouted “Taser, Taser, Taser,” as he pulled the electric stun gun from its holster. Slager said Scott was waving his right hand behind his back, in what he believed was an attempt to deflect any possible Taser fire. Slager said he fired one shot, but it failed to connect. He reloaded and fired again, this time Scott fell to the ground.

“I didn’t know why he was running. It made no sense to me,” Slager told the court.

The jurors’ eyes switched from the witness stand to lead defense attorney Andy Savage as Slager responded to questioning. Asked by Savage to slowly explain his attempts to restrain the suspect, Slager said he approached Scott, who was attempting to stand. According to Slager, Scott then rolled onto his back as the officer attempted to place the 50-year-old in handcuffs. Pressing down on Scott with his left elbow, Slager delivered a stun directly into Scott’s side before calling for backup. As Slager reached for his radio, he claims Scott was able to pull the Taser from his hands and use the weapon against him.

Standing before the courtroom, Slager leaned forward with his arms extended to demonstrate the position Scott took as they both returned to their feet. Slager then claims that Scott began to approach him with the Taser.

“In my mind was fear. I was scared. With everything leading up to this . . . it was total fear that Mr. Scott was coming toward me,” said Slager, as he struggled to hold back tears.

It was at this point that Slager said he opened fire. Asked in court if he recalled how many shots he fired, Slager replied, “I fired until the threat was stopped, like I’m trained to do.”

An eyewitness video of the shooting shows Scott with his back turned to Slager, fleeing, as the officer fired his weapon eight times. Testimony from a previous expert witness who evaluated the eyewitness video and three-dimensional scans of the crime scene estimate that Scott was 17 to 18 feet away when Slager fired the first shot.

Following the shooting, the eyewitness video shows Slager approach Scott’s body and place him in handcuffs before retrieving the Taser, which had fallen to the ground at the location of the struggle. Slager can then be seen dropping the Taser next to Scott’s body, but he denied that he was attempting to plant evidence.

Looking back at what has been learned over the more than 18 months since the shooting and the revelation that Scott was unarmed, Slager’s attorney asked what he would have done differently. Slager replied that he never would have pursued Scott. He said he would have called for backup right away.

Slager was then asked to describe his childhood and time as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard before the defense reviewed previous investigations into his use of force while employed by the North Charleston Police Department. Records show Slager used his Taser 14 times during his five years as an officer, all of which were deemed appropriate by department standards.

During cross-examination by Deputy Solicitor Bruce DuRant, Slager was asked to review the oath he took when he became an officer, swearing to safeguard lives and property, never abuse authority, and never employ unnecessary force. Listing the extensive training that Slager received, not only during his time as an officer, but also with the Coast Guard, DuRant questioned the former officer’s decision to use deadly force to apprehend a fleeing suspect.

“Would you agree at this time that he is not armed and he is running away from you?” DuRant asked Slager as they watched the eyewitness video. “At the time, April 4, I would say no. But after watching the video, yes,” Slager answered.

DuRant proceeding to point out other inconsistencies: Slager’s failure to inform his fellow officers and supervisors that Scott had tased him on the day of the shooting. Slager’s claim that his own Taser had been used against him would not come until three days after Scott’s death when Slager was being interviewed by state investigators regarding the incident.

Before learning that the shooting had been captured on video, Slager also told agents that he had immediately returned his Taser to its holster after handcuffing Scott. The video shows the former officer retrieving the weapon from the scene of the struggle before dropping it next to Scott’s body.

In court Tuesday, Slager maintained that he believed Scott was still in possession of the Taser when he opened fire. “At that point, I made the decision to use lethal force. Mr. Scott never stopped. He was always dangerous,” Slager said.

Slager’s testimony ended with his account of life following his shooting of Scott. Recounting his time in jail, Slager said he was held in a room next to accused Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof, whose federal murder trial is currently ongoing across the street from Slager’s trial. Missing the birth of his son while in custody, Slager tearfully stated that the shooting has taken an emotional toll on his life. “My family has been destroyed by this. The Scott family’s been destroyed by this. It’s horrible,” Slager said.

The case is expected to go to the jury, comprised of 11 whites and one black, by week’s end.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Dustin Waters