Walter Scott and the presumption of guilt for black Americans
Steven Hale reports in the Washington Post:
To blame the jury that deadlocked and prompted a mistrial Monday in the case of a white South Carolina police officer who shot Walter Scott dead, hitting him withfive bullets as Scott fled a routine traffic stop, is to miss the larger, grotesque point.
It is a point that activists and people of color have been attesting to, and protesting about, for decades now. The point is, simply, that the presumption of innocence, a cornerstone of our criminal-justice system, at least in theory, is rivaled by another American tradition — the presumption of guilt that weighs upon black Americans and the devastatingly disproportionate punishments it wreaks upon its victims. It can be seen in the way black men are so often described as hyper-aggressive superhuman threats by prosecutors looking to convict them or police officers seeking to justify a use of force against them.
Still, that 12 jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict on what would seem to be as clear cut a case as a jury is likely to see is baffling. It must be noted that all the jurors except for one were white. Still, this case had video footage of a police officer calmly raising his gun, carefully taking aim and firing multiple rounds into the back of a fleeing, unarmed man and then handcuffing him as he lay on the ground. Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager claimed that he was in “total fear” during a struggle between the two men and that Scott had grabbed his Taser. But he was captured on video placing his Taser next to Scott’s lifeless body after the shooting.
One must wonder: What detail could be added to make Slager look more guilty of Scott’s murder — or at the very least, of manslaughter, an option that was available to the jury?
It forces one, yet again, to confront the overwhelming evidence that this is a feature of our criminal-justice system, not a bug.
A Post investigation in 2015 found that out of thousands of fatal shootings by police since 2005, only 54 officers were even charged, with most of them being cleared or acquitted. A massive investigation by Charleston’s Post and Courier found similarly that African Americans were disproportionately the victims of police shootings and that subsequent investigations of those shootings heavily favored the police. Here at The Watch, Radley Balko has dug into South Carolina’s poisonous police culture.
I asked Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina, for his reaction to the mistrial. . .
If a police officer feels great fear from a man running away from him, then that police officer should find another job. A person fleeing from you should not cause you to be afraid.