A South Carolina murder trial beginning today that centers on a 2015 citizen video of a white officer fatally shooting a black man is likely to reanimate a national discussion over race and police conduct, the Wall Street Journal reports. Prosecutors are likely to argue that a bystander’s video shows that Michael Slager wasn’t in imminent danger when he shot Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., and that he violated police procedures and South Carolina state law, committing murder. Lawyers for Slager, 34, will argue the footage presents an incomplete picture of what happened.
Slager was arrested and fired by the police department after the incident. Bystander Feidin Santana recorded the April 4, 2015, shooting on his cellphone, then gave a copy to the Scott family, who in turn gave it to police. Police quickly released it to the media. The footage sparked a national outcry from the NAACP and other groups about police use of force against African Americans and calls for more use of body cameras by police to record their encounters with the public. Slager is one of 21 current or former U.S. police officers with pending murder or manslaughter charges for an on-duty shooting, says criminologist Philip Stinson of Bowling Green State University. in Ohio. Key issues in Slager’s trial will be whether he acted as a reasonable officer would in a similar situation and had legitimate cause to perceive a threat, said Kami Chavis, a Wake Forest University law professor. The video is “pretty damning,” she said, because it shows Scott fleeing, with no sign he was armed. “The thing that really makes this one different is that it demonstrates the power of video to change the narrative,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and an expert on police behavior.