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South Carolina police officer in Walter Scott shooting indicted on murder charge

The North Charleston, S.C., police officer who fatally shot Walter Scott as he fled a traffic stop this year was indicted by a grand jury Monday on a charge of murder.

This indictment comes two months after Michael Slager was charged with murder for shooting and killing Scott, an event recorded by a bystander’s cellphone and shared widely on cable news and social media. Slager was arrested April 7 and fired from the North Charleston Police Department.

Scarlett A. Wilson, the prosecutor for Charleston County, announced the indictment at a news conference Monday morning, but she said there still is no timetable for when the trial will occur.

Information about the case was presented to the grand jury Monday, and the indictment was quickly returned, though Wilson would not comment on precisely how long the jurors deliberated.

“It was all handled today,” she said Monday.

[How many people are shot by the police each year?]

If convicted, Slager faces 30 years to life in prison with no possibility of parole, Wilson said.

While South Carolina does have capital punishment, Wilson has previously said the former officer was unlikely to face the death penalty because there were no “aggravating circumstances” present. The South Carolina state code says the death penalty can be imposed only in certain cases, such as when a homicide victim is a child or law enforcement officer.

Andrew J. Savage III, an attorney for Slager, said in a statement Monday that the grand jury “is a formal step, but just another step in the criminal process.”

Charleston County, S.C., officials released the radio transmission involving N. Charleston police officer Michael T. Slager in the fatal shooting of Walter Scott. (Editor’s Note: The officials provided two versions of the recording to The Washington Post, an unedited version of the real-time recording and an edited version in which they removed prolonged periods of silence. We have posted the edited version.) (Video: Charleston County)

Savage, a Charleston defense lawyer, had previously criticized law enforcement agencies for not providing him with requested files on the investigation. He said Monday that this information has still not been provided to him.

“Until we have an opportunity to fully evaluate the state’s case and to compare it with our own investigation, we will not be commenting on any aspect of the case,” Savage said.

Dashboard camera footage taken from the inside of Slager’s police car captured the traffic stop that occurred moments before the shooting. Slager is seen on the video telling Scott that he was pulled over because of a broken brake light, and a short time later Scott runs away from the vehicle.

The bystander’s footage shows Scott fleeing across a tree-lined patch of grass as Slager fires multiple shots at him, striking him “multiple times in the back,” according to an affidavit filed in the case.

In South Carolina, there is only one type of murder charge, as opposed to other states that have different degrees of murder.

“What we’re talking about is an unlawful killing with malice aforethought,” Wilson said of the charge against Slager.

This indictment was expected, but it comes amid a period of increased focus on how police officers use lethal force. Protests have erupted in cities across the country after deaths in New York, Cleveland, Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., among others.

[‘Look for justice.’ A shooting in South Carolina and the power of video]

Police officers are rarely charged for shooting and killing people in the line of duty. A Washington Post investigation found that thousands of police shootings over the past decade resulted in relatively few indictments, generally when other factors existed that made the case exceptional — such as video footage of the episode.

So far this year, police officers have shot and killed more than 400 people, according to a Washington Post database tracking police shootings all year. There are three cases this year that have resulted in charges, including the North Charleston case, and all three involved video footage.

The video, recorded by Feidin Santana, a bystander who was walking to work at a barbershop, helped propel the case to national attention. Experts said video footage can help clarify cases that otherwise can become muddled and can be forced to rely on eyewitness accounts.

[How the response to protests over police force changed over the past year]

“In any case, more is better,” Wilson said Monday after announcing the indictment. “When you have more evidence, it closes up the ability for questions to arise. It doesn’t mean just because you have video in a case, it doesn’t mean it’s the be-all, end-all in a case and it’s over.”

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the state agency that looked into the shooting, said investigators noticed “inconsistencies” in Slager’s story when they began examining it, suggesting that they thought something was suspicious even before the video emerged. But Scott’s relatives disagreed with that assertion.

“It would have never come to light,” Scott’s father, Walter Scott Sr., told the “Today” show in April. “They would have swept it under the rug, like they did with many others.”

Related reads:

Thousands dead, few prosecuted: An investigation into police shootings

Fatal police shootings in 2015: An attempt to document a previously unknown number

For police officers, fewer deaths but increased tension amid protests

This post has been updated. First published: 11:27 a.m.