Prosecutors have vowed to retry Michael Slager, the onetime North Charleston officer, in state court, where he was charged with murder. He has also been indicted on federal charges alleging that he violated Scott’s civil rights during the April 2015 shooting, which could carry a potential life sentence.
After the mistrial was announced, attorneys for Scott’s family pointed to both of these upcoming trials as proof that Slager “may have delayed justice, but he did not escape it.” The following day, though, Vice President-elect Mike Pence suggested that the federal trial was not necessarily set in stone, saying the next administration would have to decide if they will continue pressing that case.
“That’ll be a decision that the attorney general will review and make after January the 20th, and I’ll let our designee and of course President-elect [Trump] review that,” Pence said Tuesday morning during an interview on MSNBC.
Pence said that “every American was just heartbroken and shocked to see the video,” adding that it would be up to the next attorney general to “make the decision whether the federal government remains involved.”
A spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s selection for attorney general, and an adviser for the transition did not respond to requests for comment about the case.
In interviews on Tuesday, former federal prosecutors said it would be very unusual for the Justice Department to abandon this case under a new administration and described such a move as highly unlikely.
“This whole notion that the Department of Justice is going to dismiss this, there’s no basis for saying that,” said Bill Nettles, who stepped down in June after six years as the U.S. attorney in South Carolina. “I just can’t imagine that a new attorney general would reverse the course on this case. I just don’t see that happening.”
A decision to abandon the charges against Slager would go against the grain for the country’s top law enforcement agency, which “prides itself on consistency,” Nettles said.
“I would be shocked, literally shocked, if there’s a decision not to go forward on the [civil rights] case against Mr. Slager,” he said.
Slager was indicted on a federal civil rights violation in May, more than a year after he was charged with murder.
No trial date is currently set, and it does not appear the federal case will make much progress before the new administration takes office next month. In August, at the federal government’s request, U.S. District Judge David C. Norton agreed to push the case into 2017.
“The federal case against Officer Michael Slager is independent of the state’s charges, and the Justice Department’s prosecution will proceed under the schedule set by the court,” a spokesman for the department said in a statement Teusday.
Andrew J. Savage III, an attorney for Slager, said he hoped the former officer’s representatives would be able to meet with people making the decisions about the case in a new administration so they can make their argument about the charges. When Slager was indicted earlier this year, Savage’s firm called the charges “very extreme” and suggested they were motivated by “the burden of many past cases that were handled differently.”
Former Justice Department officials say the odds of the case being abandoned under a Trump administration also appear low because it would be a jarring, high-profile move that could prompt controversy — and would require Sessions, who spent 12 years as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, to overrule the work of career prosecutors who built the case.
In the state case, meanwhile, the timing of a retrial is also up in the air. Within an hour of the jury announcing its deadlock, Scarlett A. Wilson, the prosecutor for Charleston County, said that she could not “overstate our disappointment that this case was not resolved” and confirmed that her office would try Slager again.
However, she did not specify when Slager, who was fired after the shooting, would be retried, saying in a statement, “We hope the federal and state courts will coordinate efforts regarding any future trial dates but we stand ready whenever the court calls.”
Beattie B. Ashmore, a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina, said Tuesday in an email that he expected the federal case would proceed early next year, likely before the retrial gets underway in state court.
Officials who spoke Tuesday also said they did not expect the mistrial to deter the federal prosecution and said there was at least one potential benefit for the prosecutors to follow the state trial: Slager’s testimony about the shooting.
“The federal prosecutors now have the advantage of knowing the defense strategy and sworn testimony of the witnesses,” Ashmore said. “You can rest assured they already have the transcript and are dissecting every word of Mr. Slager from the recent state trial.”
Savage said in an email after the mistrial that he planned to spend the coming weeks reviewing the trial transcript in an effort to mount a more persuasive argument and find “a better way to tell our story.”
The state and federal cases — one involving a murder charge, another a civil rights count — are also fundamentally different, officials said. In the state trial, the video footage of Slager firing at Scott’s back was pitted against the former officer’s testimony that he feared for his life after a physical struggle between the men over his Taser.
Nettles, the former South Carolina prosecutor, said that while civil rights prosecutions entail a high legal threshold, the federal trial here involves “a much more objective case” than the state trial.
“The state case, they were trying to decide what was in Slager’s heart and mind at the time the shooting took place,” he said, while the civil rights “case is much more: Were his rights violated? Regardless of what Slager was thinking.”
This story, first published at 3:53 p.m., has been updated to include the Justice Department’s statement.