In Michael Slager trial, justice is elusive – again

The Observer editorial board

Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager testifies during his murder trial at the Charleston County court in Charleston, on Nov. 29.
Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager testifies during his murder trial at the Charleston County court in Charleston, on Nov. 29. AP

Family after family after family have suffered as their loved ones were gunned down by police. Time after time after time, they were told: There’s not enough evidence to prove that the officer acted criminally.

Then the Michael Slager case came along in North Charleston – a shooting in which the evidence against the officer was overwhelming and undeniable. Finally, a family enduring tragedy would be granted justice. Finally, a rogue officer who stains the reputation of all the honorable officers would be held accountable.

Yet, somehow, he wasn’t, and America again has the scab of race, justice and police brutality ripped off.

Slager pulled black motorist Walter Scott over for a broken taillight. Scott, likely worried about being delinquent on child support, fled on foot and Slager chased him. After a struggle, Scott fled again. Slager fired eight shots, hitting him five times.

Recent American history has demonstrated how rare it is for an officer to be charged in a shooting. A Washington Post investigation last year found that out of many thousands of fatal police shootings over the previous decade, only 54 resulted in charges against the officer. Those cases usually involved a factor or two that made them exceptional.

The Slager case had at least five such factors. Scott was unarmed. He was shot in the back. A bystander’s video recorded the shooting with unusual clarity. Slager appeared to try to cover up his crime by picking up his Taser then walking to Scott’s body and dropping it there. And other officers sided with Scott’s family.

The video, courageously shot by barber Feidin Santana on his phone as he walked to work, horrified the nation. But it wasn’t enough for one juror who told Judge Clifton Newman he or she could not “in good conscience consider a guilty verdict.”

It’s a foundational element of our judicial system that a single juror of 12 can cause a mistrial. And one should be careful about drawing conclusions about justice in America based on one person’s refusal to budge.

Still, the Slager outcome is a true travesty, and is another rip in the fabric of justice in our nation. Victims of police shootings, and African-Americans in particular, have repeatedly felt those rips, even if the vast majority of police shootings are justified and the vast majority of officers upright.

Scott’s family members have shown incredible dignity from the beginning. Their calls for peace helped prevent violence after the shooting. Even after the mistrial Monday, they offered calm reassurance that justice had only been delayed, not denied. (The prosecutor promises a retrial.)

They are setting an admirable example, because the rest of us, of all races, should be disheartened. To be sure, each case must be assessed on its unique evidence. But when that evidence is crystal clear and still produces the wrong conclusion, how does one maintain hope?

The Slager case was an opportunity to take one small step toward racial healing and better police-citizen relations. Instead, it’s another egregious setback in a long line.