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Opinion Walter Scott and the presumption of guilt for black Americans

Pallbearers walk Walter Scott’s casket to the gravesite for his burial service in Charleston, S.C., on Saturday, April 11, 2015. (Associated Press)

To blame the jury that deadlocked and prompted a mistrial Monday in the case of a white South Carolina police officer who shot Walter Scott dead, hitting him with five bullets as Scott fled a routine traffic stop, is to miss the larger, grotesque point.

It is a point that activists and people of color have been attesting to, and protesting about, for decades now. The point is, simply, that the presumption of innocence, a cornerstone of our criminal-justice system, at least in theory, is rivaled by another American tradition — the presumption of guilt that weighs upon black Americans and the devastatingly disproportionate punishments it wreaks upon its victims. It can be seen in the way black men are so often described as hyper-aggressive superhuman threats by prosecutors looking to convict them or police officers seeking to justify a use of force against them.

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)

Still, that 12 jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict on what would seem to be as clear cut a case as a jury is likely to see is baffling. It must be noted that all the jurors except for one were white. Still, this case had video footage of a police officer calmly raising his gun, carefully taking aim and firing multiple rounds into the back of a fleeing, unarmed man and then handcuffing him as he lay on the ground. Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager claimed that he was in “total fear” during a struggle between the two men and that Scott had grabbed his Taser. But he was captured on video placing his Taser next to Scott’s lifeless body after the shooting.

One must wonder: What detail could be added to make Slager look more guilty of Scott’s murder — or at the very least, of manslaughter, an option that was available to the jury?

It forces one, yet again, to confront the overwhelming evidence that this is a feature of our criminal-justice system, not a bug.

A Post investigation in 2015 found that out of thousands of fatal shootings by police since 2005, only 54 officers were even charged, with most of them being cleared or acquitted. A massive investigation by Charleston’s Post and Courier found similarly that African Americans were disproportionately the victims of police shootings and that subsequent investigations of those shootings heavily favored the police. Here at The Watch, Radley Balko has dug into South Carolina’s poisonous police culture.

I asked Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina, for his reaction to the mistrial.

“These are difficult cases for prosecutors,” he says. “Here, they have to establish that Michael Slager either wasn’t afraid for his life or that such a fear was unreasonable, and they have to establish that beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s a high bar. Still, this was a particularly egregious case. I can’t say that I expected a murder conviction, but I admit that I expected a manslaughter conviction.”

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)

Slager still faces federal charges and prosecutors in South Carolina said Monday they planned to put him on trial again. But the fact that a jury, or at least enough of one, was convinced that Slager was reasonably afraid for his life as a black man ran away from him shows just how deep the rot goes. As Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” — released on Netflix this year — painstakingly shows, assumptions of criminality have been a fact of life for black Americans since at least the moment they stopped being held as slaves — and not by accident. That legacy, tied together with a law enforcement system that will go to great lengths to avoid policing itself and brewed over decades and decades, will get you a hung jury in the case of a police officer who shot a man in the back until he fell to the ground dead.

For all its inconsistencies, our criminal-justice system has shown it can do two things with ruthless regularity: find guilt in a black man and innocence in a cop.