For the defense in the trial of Michael Slager, the former North Charleston officer’s guilt or innocence comes down to a matter of inches and seconds. Throughout the trial, Slager’s attorneys have continually tried to convince jurors that the patrolman considered his life to be in danger when he opened fire on Walter Scott. Slager claims that following a struggle, Scott was able to gain control of the officer’s Taser as the two pulled themselves up from the ground. While an eyewitness video of the shooting shows Scott fleeing when he was shot in the back five times, the defense has asked that the jury consider what happened April 4, 2015, not from the perspective of the camera, but through the eyes of Michael Slager.
The fourth week in the trial concluded with testimony from Eugene Liscio, who specializes in creating three-dimensional reconstructions of crime scenes. Using scans taken of the scene of the shooting, as well as images from the eyewitness video, Liscio was able to virtually take the jury from the parking lot where Slager stopped Scott’s 1991 Mercedes-Benz for a non-functioning brake light to the point where Slager pulled his firearm.
Liscio compared individual frames from the video to the three-dimensional scans taken by SLED agents in the weeks following the shooting to pinpoint where the two men were standing after the struggle when Slager opened fire. Stepping toward the jury, lead prosecutor Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson stood with her arms crossed in front of a large monitor as the expert witness walked the courtroom through his presentation. Switching from the cellphone video of the shooting to an interactive rendering of the moment Slager opened fire, Liscio zoomed in on the isolated image of two figures — one standing with his arms out in front of him, pistol drawn, the other highlighted in yellow with his back turned running. This was the moment that the first shot was fired.
“What is the distance you computed, or can you compute here between these two? Why don’t you measure from center torso to center torso?” defense attorney Donald McCune asked the witness. Liscio estimates Scott and Slager were 18 feet apart at the time the officer first pulled the trigger, placing the men approximately one foot farther apart than previously suggested by witnesses for the prosecution. But the defense chose to draw the jury’s attention to another key point depicted in the video and Liscio’s recreation.
Cycling back through the video to the moment where Scott is shown pulling away from Slager — the officer’s left hand grabbing Scott’s arm, his right hand reaching for his pistol — Liscio was asked to assess the distance between the two men at that point, which he measured to be 27 inches. As for Slager’s Taser, Liscio said it can be seen tumbling to the ground behind the officer.
Through his own interpretation of the video and the trajectory of the Taser, Liscio told the court that it is likely the weapon was thrown at a time when Slager’s hands appear to be clutching Scott and his holster. The prosecution asked Liscio to clarify whether or not he believes Scott was responsible for throwing the Taser.
“What I’m suggesting is, if you look at the position of where the Taser is, its motion, if you look at the position of officer Slager or where he’s pointing to or where he’s directing his fire to, if he had stepped back and kicked it, it would have gone in a different direction,” Liscio said. “If he had thrown it with his hand, it has to be physically consistent. So if somebody throws a Taser down, I would have expected at that point to see officer Slager’s hand in a down position or something to that effect — not with his elbow up. There are other possibilities. You can eliminate other things that maybe Mr. Scott did, but I would say it’s most likely or maybe the physical evidence points back to it being thrown.”
Closing out questioning last week, attorneys for both the prosecution and defense chose to look beyond the witness’s three-dimensional renderings, instead choosing to once again bring out a simple tape measure. With Wilson holding one end, Liscio was asked to measure out 18 feet, stretching the tape from where the jury was seated to the defense table. He continued to step farther and farther away as the solicitor called out the estimated distances from which the subsequent shots were fired.
Not to be outdone, McCune later stood face to face with Liscio as the two measured out 27 inches — the distance between Scott and Slager when the Taser can be seen falling to the ground.
“Twenty-seven inches is 27 inches right? And 1.5 seconds is 1.5 seconds?” McCune asked Liscio, reminding jurors of the time it took Slager to open fire after Scott pulled away.
An unclear danger
It’s in that 1.5 seconds that Slager’s attorneys say the officer was forced to decide to use deadly force. In hopes of proving that Slager’s Taser had been used against him and the officer was in fear for his life when he opened fire on Scott, lead defense attorney Andy Savage began the trial’s fourth week with a line of questioning aimed at showing that the former officer was in clear and present danger just seconds prior to the shooting. SLED forensics examiner Megan Fletcher was called to the stand last week to testify regarding the findings of gunshot residue on both Scott and Slager, in addition to possible evidence of Taser damage on Slager’s uniform.
Fletcher examined the shirt Slager was wearing on the day of the shooting to determine if the microscopic markings found on the fabric were consistent with a stun from a Taser. Firing a Taser directly into shirts identical to the one Slager was wearing during his struggle with Scott, Fletcher studied the damage left behind by the weapon and informed attorneys that she could not rule out Taser fire as the cause of melted fibers observed under a microscope.
“These fibers have undergone some sort of high temperature greater than the melting point of polyester,” said Fletcher. “As I said before, that is greater than 480 degree Fahrenheit.”
While the expert examiner could not rule out that the damage was caused by a Taser, Fletcher was unwilling to dismiss the possibility that the melting was caused by another heat source, even though she was unable to guess what that may be. Attorney Chad Simpson for the prosecution cross-examined Fletcher, asking about the presence of small holes found in the shirts tested with the Taser. Fletcher testified that no such marks were found on the portion of Slager’s uniform that she examined.
Following Fletcher, the defense called Dr. Mark Kroll to the stand to offer his expertise on the effects of electricity. Although Fletcher would not definitively state that the damaged fibers found on Slager’s shirt were caused by a Taser, Kroll claimed a Taser was the only possible cause.
Darrin Porcher, a former NYPD officer and expert in police use of force, examined reports detailing incidents during which Slager had used his Taser in the past. Over the 14 instances in which the officer pulled the weapon in his four years on the job, all were deemed appropriate, according to department standards. The defense also called Slager’s direct supervisor on the day of the shooting as well as North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers to the stand. Both men acknowledged that the allocation of manpower on the day Walter Scott was killed resulted in a lack of immediate back-up for Slager. Although the department established new minimum manpower requirements this July, Driggers said that decision was not a result of Slager’s action on the day of the shooting. Driggers confirmed that Slager had remained faithful to the policies set by the North Charleston Police Department during his career, but when asked about the 14 times that Slager had pulled his Taser in the line of duty, the chief said the number sounded high to him. And when asked by the defense if the department had learned anything from Scott’s shooting, Driggers replied, “There’s always lessons learned, yes sir.”