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Opening Statements Begin In North Charleston Police Shooting Trial

Former North Charleston police Officer Michael Slager (second from left) in the courtroom in Charleston, S.C., on Thursday.
Grace Beahm
Former North Charleston police Officer Michael Slager (second from left) in the courtroom in Charleston, S.C., on Thursday.

Testimony in the trial of former North Charleston, S.C., police Officer Michael Slager opened Thursday with statements from both the prosecution and defense. Slager is accused of murdering Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, last year.

In her opening statement, prosecutor Scarlett Wilson emphasized that Scott had been shot in the back multiple times after fleeing a traffic stop, and called his death an "extreme consequence."

Conversely, Slager's defense attorney, Andy Savage, reminded jurors that their consideration of the case must be "governed by a presumption of innocence." Savage argued that it was Scott who provoked the shooting. "It wasn't Mr. Slager who was angry and full of animosity," he said.

Slager was fired after video of the encounter taken by a witness emerged.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has reported on the video footage of the shooting:

"Video from Slager's dashcam shows the officer at the driver's window, asking for Scott's driver's license and questioning him about documents for the car. After Slager returns to his patrol car, Scott jumps out of the car and runs. Slager gives chase, and there's an off-camera confrontation.

"That's where a bystander video picks up. The bystander recorded the scene unfolding in an empty lot, and it's startling. Scott is running away from the officer when Slager opens fire.

"Slager said Scott had his Taser, but the bystander video that surfaced a few days after the shooting appears to contradict this story. Once it was public, the North Charleston Police Department fired the officer, and a grand jury indicted him for murder."

The Charleston Post and Courier reported that the jury is made up of 11 white people and one black person from Charleston County. During jury selection, the defense blocked nine potential jurors, including seven minorities, according to The Associated Press.

The population of Charleston County, where the trial is taking place, is made up of about 28 percent black people, according to the latest Census data.

The newspaper reported that both sides in the case raised objections during the jury selection process:

"The jury [was finalized] after prosecutors dropped a legal challenge, alleging the defense's dismissal of seven minorities from the jury pool was racially motivated.

"The panel members were plucked at random from a pool of more than 100, all of whom knew about the killing, defense lawyer Andy Savage said in court after the group was selected. About 95 percent had seen the footage [of the shooting]."

The Post and Courier reported that Judge Clifton Newman denied a defense request to move the trial to a different county, where fewer people were familiar with the case.

Slager faces a sentence up to life in prison if he is convicted, as NPR has reported.

Slager is facing separate civil rights charges in federal court. The city of North Charleston approved a $6.5 million civil settlement with Scott's family in 2015, reported South Carolina Public Radio.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.

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