The murder trial of a South Carolina police officer who shot an unarmed black man last year is underway, with attorneys from both sides delivering opening statements on Thursday.
Michael Slager, a former North Charleston police officer, is facing life in prison for the fatal shooting of Walter Scott. The shooting sparked outrage and nationwide debate over police violence against minorities.
Here’s what you need to know about the trial:
Who was Walter Scott?
Walter Scott was a 50-year-old black man from South Carolina who worked as a forklift operator. He served in the US Coast Guard for two years in the 1980s before being granted a discharge under honorable conditions for a drug-related offence.
Scott had a lengthy arrest record — His record listed “about 10 arrests,” mostly for failing to pay child support, according to Charleston’s Post and Courier.
What happened the day of his death?
On the morning of April 4, 2015, Slager — a North Charleston officer with five years of experience — pulled over Scott for having a broken brake light. Dashcam footage shows that Slager spoke to Scott, and when he returned to his police vehicle, Scott left his car and fled, with Slager chasing him on foot.
The chase led Slager and Scott to a grassy lot behind a pawn shop. Bystander video recorded on a cell phone begins with Slager firing his Taser at Scott as Scott flees. Wires appear to be extending from Scott’s body.
The video shows Scott slowly running away as something — possibly the Taser — falls to the ground behind the two men. Slager shoots at Scott eight times as he is running away, hitting him five times, according to a coroner’s report.
Slager claimed in his report that Scott had taken his Taser, and that he shot Scott because he felt “threatened” and feared for his life.
Feidin Santana/handout via Reuters.
North Charleston police officer Michael Slager (R) is seen allegedly shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back as he runs away, in this still image from video in North Charleston, South Carolina taken April 4, 2015.
What are the charges?
Three days after the shooting, Slager was arrested and charged with murder. A South Carolina grand jury later indicted him on the charge. Slager faces 30 years to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Slager was also indicted on federal charges: violating Scott’s civil rights, unlawfully using his weapon in the commission of a crime, and obstruction of justice. No date has been set for that trial.
What does the case hinge on?
The key to the case will likely be whether the jury determines Slager was in life-threatening danger when he fired at Scott.
In her opening statement, prosecutor Scarlett Wilson argued that Slager’s actions were extreme and unwarranted, according to ABC News. She said Slager lied about the incident by claiming Scott took his Taser and was approaching him with it. She also said Slager staged the crime scene by dropping the Taser near Scott’s body.
The defence argued in its opening statement that Scott provoked the shooting. Slager’s attorney Andy Savage said Scott had in fact taken away Slager’s Taser, and that the officer did not know whether Scott was armed, ABC News reported. He will likely argue that the cell-phone video does not give the full picture of what happened.
Who are the jurors?
The jury consists of 12 people — six white men, five white women, and one black man.
How will Charleston react?
Some locals fear the trial’s verdict could polarize the community.
The Slager trial will coincide with next week’s trial of Dylann Roof, a white supremacist accused of killing nine black people in a Charleston church in 2015. City leaders have urged residents to refrain from violence during the two trials, WCBD News reported.