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As Walter Scott shooting trial begins, pleas for peace

By John Bacon, USA TODAY

Almost 200 prospective jurors reported Monday to a South Carolina courthouse for the trial of a white former police officer accused of killing an unarmed black man in a racially charged case that has some Charleston-area leaders wary that “outsiders” could damage efforts at healing.

Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, 34, is accused of fatally shooting Walter Scott, 50, following a traffic stop more than 18 months ago. Taking center stage in the legal drama is a wobbly, grainy video of the deadly encounter recorded by a passerby on his cellphone.

Slager was fired from the force and charged with murder within days of the shooting. If convicted, he could face 30 years in prison. Slager also is awaiting trial in federal court, charged with violating Scott’s rights, obstruction of justice and a gun violation.

Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott, who is no relation to Walter Scott, told USA TODAY on Monday that she appreciated the quick action of authorities against Slager. But she said she had no doubt the scenario would have been different had the video not surfaced.

“This trial would not be happening without that video,” Scott said. “The account given by the officer would have been taken at face value, no matter what the evidence showed.”

She said the case did prompt meaningful efforts to create more understanding and a healthier relationship between the force and the community. But she said change has been slow among rank-and-file officers.

“We are not where we need to be yet. We are not even close,” she said. “Old habits are hard to break.”

Scott, Mayor John Tecklenburg and local National Action Network Elder James Johnson are among local leaders lobbying the community to remain peaceful no matter what the trial’s outcome. Johnson, at a news conference Monday, warned that “outsiders” coming to Charleston to protest could do more harm than good.

“We do not want outsiders coming into our city and speaking for the people of Charleston,” Johnson said. “We can speak for ourselves.”

Tecklenburg said the trial provides his city the opportunity to show the world the community’s unity and that “love conquers hate.”

The shooting, on April 4, 2015, was one in a series of fatal shootings of black men by police officers across the nation that prompted protests and a national conversation about race, police and the judicial system.

The encounter began when Slager pulled over Scott for a broken tail light. Scott fled his car on foot, and Slager pursued him into a nearby field. Slager said Scott resisted arrest and in an ensuing struggle attempted to grab the officer’s stun gun. Slager said he feared for his life when he shot Scott in the back multiple times.

A man walking past the scene on his way to work recorded much of the confrontation. The shaky video shows Scott running away, and Slager raising his gun and firing eight times. Scott falls, and Slager orders him to put his hands behind his back before handcuffing him on the ground. The video does not show Scott attempting to take the stun gun.


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