Eric Frazier

The problem of fear in the use of deadly force

By Eric Frazier

Associate Editor, Editorial Pages

Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager gestures as he testifies in his murder trial in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday.
Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager gestures as he testifies in his murder trial in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday. AP

The locals in this historic seaport call the intersection of Broad and Meeting streets the “Four Corners of Law.”

At the four points of the compass you find the county courthouse, the federal courthouse, City Hall and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church – state law, federal law, municipal law and moral law.

When I visited my former hometown on Thursday, it seemed that all four of those branches of law were being put to the test by the two racially charged trials unfurling across the street from each other.

Dylann Roof, the white supremacist accused of killing nine African American parishioners at Emanuel AME Church, was standing trial in federal court. Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who fatally shot a fleeing Walter Scott in the back, faced jurors in his murder trial in state court.

It all felt like sensory overload: the city that was once one of America’s most prolific slave-trading ports now occupying the epicenter of the national debate over race and justice.

City officials were nervously watching and waiting, hoping to avoid the violence that followed the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte. Squadrons of TV crews camped out in front of the county courthouse. At the federal courthouse, multiple armed officers stood watch at every entrance. Police “spotters” climbed into the bell tower of St. Michael’s, the city’s oldest church building.

An unspoken question hung in the air: Can whites and blacks agree on what justice looks like?

Roof’s trial was in jury selection. The 22-year-old accused mass murderer, dressed in a baggy striped jail jumpsuit, was acting as his own lawyer. U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel kept asking potential jurors if they would be swayed in any way by the fact that Roof was white and his nine alleged victims were black.

Everyone dutifully said racial considerations would not cloud their judgment.

But when I reached Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, by phone a couple hours later, she wasn’t so sure that the race factor could be neutralized in these two trials. She, like many here, had seen the case against Slager as a slam dunk.

The white officer had been caught on video last year shooting an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, in the back from about 17 feet away.

She’d felt cautiously optimistic as the four-week trial progressed. But then she heard Wednesday’s news from Charlotte, that Brentley Vinson, the police officer who shot Keith Lamont Scott, would not be charged.

She’d thought the Charlotte case warranted criminal charges. She wondered if she might be misreading the Slager case, too.

“Tempers are running high. People are pessimistic about the outcome,” she told me Thursday. “I hope we will find that we had no reason to feel that way.”

But on Friday, her fears were realized when the jury of 11 whites and one black deadlocked. Eleven reportedly wanted to convict Slager for either manslaughter or murder. One holdout resisted.

The awful bystander video had made an acquittal seem unlikely. The fact that Slager dropped his Taser near Scott’s body didn’t help his case, either.

His former boss, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers, fired him. He said he was “sickened” by what he saw Slager do in the video. A New York Times story labeled Slager “one of the most vilified police officers in recent American history.”

But Andy Savage, one of Charleston’s wiliest criminal defense attorneys, told the jury his client had been victimized by a “false narrative” from an unfair news media. He put Slager on the witness stand. Faced with that unblinkingly incriminating video, Slager ran for his surest possible legal shelter: the self-defense standard of fear.

He acknowledged in court that the video looked bad. But he testified that he couldn’t see things so clearly in the heat of the moment. He said he shot Scott only because he was in “total fear” after Scott wrestled away control of his Taser.

Scott, he said, was just inches away when he reached for his service weapon – the implication being that Slager couldn’t help it if Scott was 17 feet away, with his back turned, by the time the first bullet hit him.

That explanation, flimsy though it was, proved enough for the sole holdout juror.

The legal question of fear sits at the heart of our ongoing national debate over police use of force against minorities. When is it reasonable to fear a black person? One group sets the bar one place. Another thinks it should be set a couple notches lower. And then we get protesters marching in the streets, yelling about police officers getting away with murder.

While the Slager jury seems hopelessly deadlocked, the jurors agreed to come back Monday and try some more.

Roof’s trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday. One of the last things I recall hearing before I left the courtroom?

Him asking if a prospective juror would be strong enough to stand against all the other jurors if the circumstances warranted.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com.

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