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Mistrial declared in case of South Carolina officer who shot Walter Scott after traffic stop

A video showing former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott is shown in court during Slager’s murder trial last week. (Grace Beahm/Pool photo via Post and Courier via AP)

A jury deadlocked Monday in the case of a former South Carolina police officer charged with murder after he was recorded on video last year firing a barrage of bullets at the back of Walter Scott, a fleeing driver, in one of the most high-profile shootings to rattle the nation in recent years.

“We as the jury regret to inform the court that despite the best efforts of all members, we are unable to come to a unanimous decision,” the jury wrote in a note that Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman read aloud in the courtroom.

Newman declared a mistrial shortly before 3:40 p.m. and thanked the jurors for their “hard work in trying to reach a unanimous verdict in this case.” Prosecutors as well as attorneys for Michael Slager, the former officer, also thanked the jurors for their effort in the case. Several jurors wiped tears from their eyes as Newman made his announcement following more than 20 hours of deliberations.

It was the second time in a matter of weeks that a mistrial was declared in a case involving an officer charged with murder after being recorded shooting someone, following a similar outcome in Ohio last month. Prosecutors in South Carolina, echoing their counterparts in Ohio, vowed to seek another trial for Slager.

When he declared the mistrial, Newman did not say whether the deadlock came down to a sole holdout. The jury of 11 white people and one black man in Charleston began deliberating Wednesday and seemed on the verge of a deadlock by Friday, when a juror sent a note saying they could not pick a guilty verdict. Jurors then asked to take the weekend off and resume deliberations Monday morning.

Jury teetered on the brink of a deadlock last week

Slager, who is white, was fired after graphic video emerged showing him shooting Scott, a black motorist, as the 50-year-old was running away after a traffic stop in April 2015.

A mistrial is declared in the case of a white former policeman accused of murder after fatally shooting a fleeing black motorist last year. (Video: Reuters)

The recording, captured by a bystander, spread quickly across news stations and the Internet, propelled into the public consciousness during a wave of scrutiny and protests nationwide focusing on how police use deadly force. Slager became the rare officer charged for an on-duty shooting, and the case continued to draw national attention as it stretched into December.

Slager, who said he feared for his life during the encounter, was charged remarkably quickly amid a shifting climate sparked by protests in Ferguson, Mo., just months before Scott’s death. After local officials announced the charges and vowed reforms in an attempt to reassure the public, a local activist said they didn’t want the city to become “another Ferguson.”

South Carolina police officer charged with murder

After the officer pulled Scott over for a traffic stop, footage recorded by Slager’s dashboard camera captured the two men briefly interacting before Scott runs away and out of view. Over the police radio, Slager can be heard calling in a description of Scott before yelling, “Taser, Taser, Taser!”

Far more widely seen was the recording captured by a bystander, video showing Scott fleeing after a physical encounter with Slager. In this video, Scott can be seen running away as the officer takes aim and fires. Slager’s trial effectively put his word against that video footage, contrasting the images shared around the world with an officer’s description of his own fear and what he said happened before the recording began.

“I was scared,” Slager said during the trial, holding back tears. He described feeling “total fear that Mr. Scott was coming toward me.”

The video showed Scott’s back to the officer as he fired the fatal shots. Slager said that while he tried to subdue Scott, the driver had grabbed the Taser during a struggle over the device.

Speaking on the witness stand, Slager was asked by a prosecutor whether he agreed that Scott was unarmed and running away. He said he did not realize the Taser had dropped behind him when he fired. “At the time,” Slager responded, “I would say no. But after watching the video, yes.”

A white former South Carolina policeman takes the stand at his murder trial to defend his decision to shoot and kill an unarmed black man last year. (Video: Reuters)

In the footage that captured Scott’s death, Slager could be seen placing an item — his Taser — near Scott’s body after the shooting.

“Look for justice”: A shooting in South Carolina and the power of video

Speaking after the mistrial was declared, Walter Scott’s older brother, Anthony, asked that people who protest in the community remain peaceful.

“We’re not going to tear up this city,” he said. “We’re going to keep it just the way it is. We’re going to believe in peaceful protests, because it didn’t turn out the way we feel, but we feel our voices need to be heard.”

Chris Stewart, an attorney for the Scott family, called the trial’s outcome “a missed opportunity for justice” but said the fight was far from over, noting that Slager faces federal charges as well as a retrial.

“He may have delayed justice, but he did not escape it,” Stewart said. When asked whether another jury will convict Slager, Stewart responded: “Of course. He dodged it by a hair, and he’s not dodging it again.”

The lawyers and family of Walter Scott, the black man who was shot dead by former South Carolina patrolman Michael Slager, react to news of his mistrial, saying the officer has "delayed" justice but will not "escape" it. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). (Video: Reuters)

Scarlett A. Wilson, the prosecutor for Charleston County, said in a statement Monday afternoon that her office fully intended to put Slager on trial once more.

“We will try Michael Slager again,” she said. Alluding to the federal charges against Slager, Wilson continued: “We hope the federal and state courts will coordinate efforts regarding any future trial dates but we stand ready whenever the court calls.”

An attorney for Slager said in an email Monday night that he would spend the coming weeks reviewing the trial’s transcript, examining how to mount a more persuasive argument and “looking for a better way to tell our story.”

In court, he had thanked the jurors for their efforts. “The rule of law has to be preserved in this country, and you have done that,” Andrew J. Savage III, the attorney, told the jurors. “I thank you.”

Gov. Nikki Haley, in a statement, said she expects a new trial in the case. “It is my understanding that there will be, as quickly as possible, a new trial where the Scott family and all of South Carolina will hopefully receive the closure that a verdict brings. Justice is not always immediate, but we must all have faith that it will be served. I certainly do,” she said.

Officers are infrequently charged for deadly on-duty shootings, and convictions in such cases are even less common. There have been thousands of police shootings since 2005, and during that same span, 78 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter, according to Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who studies arrests of officers.

The dash cam from North Charleston, S.C., police officer Michael Slager's vehicle shows the initial traffic stop and interaction. (Video: South Carolina Law Enforcement Division)

The jury in Slager’s trial began deliberating Wednesday, the same day authorities said a Charlotte police officer would not face charges for fatally shooting a man there in September. Last month, a Minnesota police officer was charged with manslaughter for shooting Philando Castile over the summer, while prosecutors in Ohio said they would retry a former campus police officer in Cincinnati after a mistrial was declared.

In all of these cases, video footage — some of which captured the shootings, while others captured the aftermath or reactions from loved ones — played a key role in the investigations and the public outcries. The recording from Cincinnati, much like the one in North Charleston, appeared to contradict the officer’s account.

Slager — who also faces a federal civil rights charge for the shooting — was charged by the state with murder last year, but the judge agreed last week to let the jurors also consider manslaughter, a lesser charge with a lighter sentence.

“I was scared”: S.C. officer on trial for murder in shooting of unarmed black man takes the stand

Under South Carolina law, murder is defined as killing a person “with malice aforethought, either express or implied” and must be punished with between 30 years in prison or life imprisonment in cases, such as this one, where the death penalty is not being sought. Manslaughter, defined as killing “without malice, express or implied,” carries with it a sentence of between two and 30 years.

The jury in Charleston had the choice between these counts or acquitting Slager, if they could reach a unanimous verdict.

In Minnesota, prosecutors last month said they opted for a second-degree manslaughter charge for the officer who shot Castile because it was “the highest, most provable offense.” The prosecutor in Ohio who decided to retry Raymond Tensing, the former officer who shot and killed Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop in Cincinnati last year, said jurors were leaning toward convicting that officer of voluntary manslaughter and acquitting him on the murder charge. He still opted to retry him on both counts.

Newman told jurors in Charleston that without a verdict, the case will likely return to the courtroom with another jury.

Scott and DuBose were among 991 people fatally shot by police last year, according to a Washington Post database tracking such deaths. Shootings by police were up at the midway point of this year; police are on pace to fatally shoot about the same number of people this year as last year.

A year of reckoning: Police fatally shoot nearly 1,000

In a year-long study, The Post found that the types of incidents that sparked protests across the country — usually white officers killing unarmed black men or boys — represented less than 4 percent of fatal shootings. More than 7 in 10 of the people shot were wielding a gun or a knife.

More officers have been charged in recent years, which have been roiled by demonstrations and calls for reform. Video evidence, available in an era of widespread police cameras and ubiquitous civilian smartphones, has increasingly been a factor in those cases.

Fewer officers were killed by suspects last year than in 2014, but that number has increased this year, reaching 62 officers shot and killed through the first 11 months of the year — up from 38 such deaths last year. Police officers say they are increasingly anxious in the era of smartphones and protests, and after ambush killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, some in law enforcement call this a uniquely difficult and dangerous time for policing.

During his trial, Slager described his regrets from the shooting, saying that in hindsight, he would have called for backup and not chased Scott.

The former officer was in custody when his son was born, and while locked up, he was held near Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old charged with killing nine black parishioners in a Charleston church last year and on trial at the same time as Slager.

“My family has been destroyed by this,” Slager said. “The Scott family’s been destroyed by this. It’s horrible.”

Dustin Waters in Charleston, S.C., contributed to this story, which has been updated since first published at 3:42 p.m.

Further reading:

North Charleston reaches $6.5 million settlement with Walter Scott’s family

Slager has been indicted on a federal civil rights violation

After mistrial, prosecutors say they will retry former University of Cincinnati police officer charged with murder