CHARLESTON, S.C. – Against a backdrop of violence by and toward police across the nation, opening statements will get underway Thursday in the murder trial of a white former police officer charged in the shooting death of an unarmed black motorist.
A panel of 11 white jurors and one black juror will decide the case against Michael Slager, who faces 30 years to life if convicted of murder in the April 2015 shooting death of 50-year-old Walter Scott. Scott fled a traffic stop in North Charleston and his shooting was captured by a bystander on dramatic cellphone video that stunned the nation.
As testimony begins in the Slager trial, a similar trial is underway in Ohio in which a white campus police officer is charged in the death of a black man. And on Wednesday, authorities apprehended a suspect in the deaths of two Iowa officers shot while sitting in their patrol cars.
Just how much the broader issues of race, violence and law enforcement should be raised during the Slager trial was discussed by attorneys as Judge Clifton Newman heard some final motions in the case.
"It's important we not go down the slippery slope of every officer-involved shooting," said prosecutor Scarlett Wilson. "The only thing that is relevant is what the defendant did that day and what was going through his head at the time."
Don McCune, one of Slager's defense attorneys, said the case is a bellwether for many people.
"We can't carve Charleston County out of the rest of the world," he said.
The judge said the case is not a referendum on what has occurred in other places.
During jury selection, the defense struck nine potential jurors, including seven minorities. The prosecution challenged whether race was being used as a basis for disqualifying those potential jurors and the defense provided detailed reasons for its strikes.
Some of those reasons were not having a good understanding of English, expressing anti-gun sentiments and, in one case, being a friend of the medical examiner, who is expected to testify.
Figures released by the clerk of court in Charleston County show that of the pool of 75 qualified jurors from which the jury was selected, 16 were black, or just more than 20 percent. The black population of the state and the county is about 28 percent.
Slager, 34, also faces trial next year in federal court on several charges, including violating Scott's civil rights.