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Trial Begins For South Carolina Police Officer Accused In Walter Scott Death


And we'll start in South Carolina. For the next few weeks, it's going to be the focus of the ongoing debate over race and policing. Jury selection started today in the murder trial of a former North Charleston police officer, Michael Slager. He's white. He's accused of killing Walter Scott, a black man, at a traffic stop last year. Scott was unarmed.

NPR's Debbie Elliott is in Charleston for the start of the trial. She joins us now. And Debbie, this case got attention in April of last year in part because a bystander recorded the shooting on his cell phone. Can you remind us of the facts?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Sure. North Charleston Patrolman Michael Slager had stopped Walter Scott for a broken tail light on the Mercedes Benz that he was driving, and Scott tried to flee. He ran out of the car and took off. Slager gave chase. And then there was an altercation. And at some point, the video kicks in.

This bystander on his way to work starts recording on his cell phone when he sees that something is happening, and he actually captures in very graphic detail Slager firing his gun eight times while Scott was running away from the officer.

CORNISH: So now jury selection has begun. What's it like there now?

ELLIOTT: You know, there's heightened security, but so far you're not seeing the kind of protests that maybe we've seen in some other cities during these high-profile cases over police tactics. There was one man on the street corner holding a blue lives matter sign and then a couple of men on the sidewalk with placards that said, you know, in remembrance of Walter Scott.

But inside the courthouse, there were about 188 potential jurors who reported for questioning. So far it's very preliminary. They're going through what the court calls a roll call. They answer where they work, if they're married and where their spouse works. A few have been excused after some conflicts came up.

The next step will be for defense attorneys and prosecutors to start asking them about whether or not they can be impartial in this really high-profile case. And you can be certain that their views on that video are going to be part of the discussion.

CORNISH: Now, once the jury is selected, what are they likely to hear from the prosecution and defense?

ELLIOTT: Well, leading up to the trial, the local prosecutor, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, has said in hearings that Slager was acting as both cop and executioner. She said Scott was trying to take off, and that was not something that called for Slager to be a, quote, "firing squad." So that's going to be her case.

And then expect testimony about the officer's Taser. Slager initially said he used his Taser to try to stop Walter Scott but that Scott took it away from him. Now, video from that cell phone shows Officer Slager dropping a Taser by Scott's body and then picking it up and putting it back in his holster. So that's going to be a main topic of dispute - just exactly what happened in that scuffle.

Defense attorney Andy Savage says the video doesn't tell the whole story and that Slager made the split-second decision to use legal - lethal force, and never once did he display racial animosity or any kind of unprofessional conduct.

CORNISH: And this isn't the only big case going on next week. Jury selection starts in the federal murder trial of Dylann Roof. He's the white man accused of killing nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church last year. How's the city preparing for all this?

ELLIOTT: You know, definitely high stakes in both of these cases, very, very charged territory. And just to be ready, the city's said today it's opened its emergency operations center. The mayor and police joined with local civil rights leaders to call for calm no matter what happens. Tina Reddy is with the South Carolina National Action Network, a civil rights group. And she said, you know, these trials can impact the city for generations to come.

TINA REDDY: We are aware that the nation is watching, and so are we. We have a judicial system that is in place, and we pray that the wisdom and faith is bestowed upon those chosen to perform this task.

ELLIOTT: She says they need wisdom not to do what's expected but what is just.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in Charleston. Debbie, thank you.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.