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Mistrial in Walter Scott police shooting sends strong message

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Walter Scott's death had been seen as a clear-cut case of police using fatal force unnecessarily. But the mistrial shows how deferential jurors are to police judgment.

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Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager sits at the defense table during testimony in his murder trial on Nov. 9 in Charleston, S.C. The judge declared a mistrial Monday.

Grace Beahm/Post and Courier/AP/File

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The mistrial of a former police officer videotaped fatally shooting an unarmed black man five times in the back raises new questions about how the high standing officers enjoy in the criminal justice system could affect meaningful police accountability.

Prosecutors have said they will seek a new trial in the death of Walter Scott, the North Charleston, S.C., motorist killed by former officer Michael Slager after a routine traffic stop. But the fact that the jury deadlocked in what many observers – police officers included – saw as a relatively open-and-shut case underscores the difficulty of convicting police officers.

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“It’s notoriously very difficult to get criminal convictions in these cases,” says Kami Chavis Simmons, director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University School of Law. “There are some [cases] that are just much more ambiguous than others, and to a lot of people this looked like a clear-cut case.”

Last week, reports suggested that only one juror was responsible for the deadlock. But a note given to Judge Clifton Newman Monday indicated that a majority of jurors could not agree on a verdict. Jurors had three options: murder, voluntary manslaughter, or acquittal.

The inability to reach a verdict after 22 hours of deliberation over four days was a surprise given the course the case had taken to this point.

In general, police officers involved in the most high-profile fatal incidents of recent years have been cleared of wrongdoing – from Ferguson, Mo., to Staten Island in New York, to Baltimore. But the case against Mr. Slager had been different.

Three days after the incident, a bystander video surfaced appearing to contradict Slager’s initial report – that, after Mr. Scott fled a traffic stop for a broken tail light, Scott attacked Slager and took his Taser, leading Slager to use lethal force. After the video become public, Slager was arrested, fired from the North Charleston Police Department, and charged with murder.

Slager’s mere presence in jail was unusual. More unusual was Judge Newman’s decision to deny Slager’s request to be released on bond.

Now, the case has further highlighted how hard convicting police officers on criminal charges is. Prosecutors face a high burden of proof that an officer’s use of force was unreasonable, and judges and juries tend to be sympathetic to the dangerous nature of officers’ work.

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Slager’s lawyers argued that the former officer had shot Scott out of fear for his own life. Testifying in his own defense, Slager said he felt “total fear” and fired his weapon “until the threat was stopped, like I’m trained to do.”

Defense attorney Andrew Savage also warned of the implications of convicting of a police officer. “Their greatest protection is the support of the community,” he said during closing arguments.

On Monday, jurors asked the judge why voluntary manslaughter had been added as potential verdict and whether the rules for self-defense were different for police than for civilians.

Prosecutors could drop the murder charge when they re-try the case, or a plea deal could be offered. Slager also faces a federal trial for violating Scott’s civil rights, with a trial scheduled for next year.

Before Judge Newman declared the mistrial, Charles Wilson, chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, had expected a manslaughter conviction.

“It’s seriously hard to convict a police officer of a murder charge, it really is,” says Mr. Wilson, a former cop who served in Rhode Island and Ohio. “No matter what people think about police officers, in these kinds of situations they are still very willing to give the police officer the benefit of the doubt.”

The Slager trial has come as Americans’ confidence in the police has edged back up after a 22-year low in 2015. Professor Chavis Simmons, a former assistant United States attorney, says cases like this are important to law enforcement accountability in the long-term.

“I’m not privy to all the evidence, so if the jury couldn’t decide they did the right thing in not deciding,” she says. “But I think this is very tragic, and I think we have to be very careful about sending a message that it’s OK for police officers to react in this manner.”