This was the one case that seemed like a sure thing.
A white police officer fires eight times at an unarmed black man who is fleeing, his back turned. The officer even picks up his Taser afterwards and places it alongside the man’s prone body, in what appeared to some as an attempt to frame the man. For African-Americans protesting law enforcement, here it was: the video almost an I-told-you-so moment, something that seemed to bolster the kind of treatment communities of color have complained about for decades.
The case of Michael Slager, a North Charleston, S.C., police officer, who killed Walter Scott following a routine traffic stop over a broken taillight last year, was different from other high-profile police shootings America has seen in the last few years. There wasn’t video of Officer Darren Wilson shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. (Wilson was never charged.) Key moments of Freddie Gray’s ride in a police transport van will likely remain unknown. (Six officers charged in Gray’s death were not convicted.) But this time, here was the proof, right on video.
But four days of jury deliberation in a South Carolina courtroom showed the case wasn’t so clear-cut. Eleven white jurors and one black juror could not come to a unanimous agreement Monday on Slager’s guilt. At times, it appeared there was just a single hold-out who would not convict on either murder or voluntary manslaughter. But a note from the jury Monday morning indicated that a majority of jurors were still undecided.
The defense argued that Slager was in danger because of a physical confrontation with Scott that wasn’t caught on camera. Slager said Scott tried to shoot him with the officer's own Taser, and his attorneys said he was acting in self-defense and therefore shouldn't be convicted.
The verdict will seem shocking to many Americans who have watched the video. But it’s another example of the difficulty of obtaining a conviction against a police officer in the U.S. Only about one-third of officers charged for on-duty shootings between 2005 and 2014 have been convicted. Why? Historically, juries give officers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the use of lethal force, in part because jurors tend to give weight to the dangers of the profession and the need officers have to protect themselves.
But there’s also a fog that hangs over any physical confrontation. The incident involving Scott and Slager was not recorded in full and so parts of it will forever remain opaque. It’s that fog that can dissuade juries from convictions of police officers, even when there’s remarkable and unsettling video of a confrontation’s final moments.