By BRUCE SMITH and JEFFREY COLLINS
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) – A white South Carolina police officer who claimed he killed a black man in self-defense was swiftly charged with murder after a bystander’s video recorded him firing eight shots at the man’s back as he ran away. Government authorities sought Wednesday to contain the outrage as protests began.
About 75 people gathered outside City Hall in North Charleston, led by a Black Lives Matter, a group formed after the fatal shooting of another black man in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Eight shots in the back!” local organizer Muhiydin D’Baha hollered through a bullhorn, and the crowd yelled “In the back!” in response.
The video recorded by an unidentified bystander shows North Charleston Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager dropping his stun gun, pulling out his handgun and firing at Walter Lamer Scott from a distance as he runs away. The 50-year-old man falls after the eighth shot, fired after a brief pause.
The dead man’s father, Walter Scott Sr. said Wednesday that the officer “looked like he was trying to kill a deer running through the woods.” He also told NBC’s “Today Show” that his son may have tried to flee because he owed child support and didn’t want to go back to jail.
The video is “the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen,” said Judy Scott, the slain man’s mother, on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“I almost couldn’t look at it to see my son running defenselessly, being shot. It just tore my heart to pieces,” she said.
The bystander is assisting investigators after providing the video to Scott’s family and lawyers.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey announced the murder charge Tuesday, saying that “when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.” “When you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or a citizen on the street, you have to live with that decision,” the mayor said.
Police initially released a statement that promised a full investigation but relied largely on the officer’s description of the confrontation, which began with a traffic stop Saturday as Slager pulled Scott over for a faulty brake light.
Slager’s then-attorney David Aylor released another statement Monday saying the officer felt threatened and fired because Scott was trying to grab his stun gun.
Aylor dropped Slager as a client after the video surfaced, and the officer, a five-year veteran with the North Charleston police, appeared without a lawyer at his first appearance Tuesday. He was denied bond and could face 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.
The shooting comes amid a plunge in trust between law enforcement and minorities after the officer-involved killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York. Nationwide protests intensified after grand juries declined to indict the officers in both cases.
“We have to take a stand on stuff like this … we can’t just shake our heads at our computer screens,” said Lance Braye, 23, who helped organize Wednesday’s demonstration.
Scott’s family and their attorney, L. Chris Stewart, appealed to keep the protests peaceful, saying the swift murder charge shows that the justice system is working so far in this case.
But Stewart said the video alone forced authorities to act decisively.
“What if there was no video? What if there was no witness, or hero as I call him, to come forward?” asked Stewart, adding that the family plans to sue the police.
The video, shot over a chain link fence and through some trees, begins after Scott has left his car. Slager follows him, reaching at the man with an object that appears to be a stun gun. As Scott pulls away, the object falls to the ground and Slager pulls out his handgun as Scott runs away.
The final shot sends Scott falling face-down about 30 feet away. Slager then slowly walks toward him and orders Scott to put his hands behind his back, but the man doesn’t move, so he pulls Scott’s arms back and cuffs his hands. The officer then walks briskly back to where he fired the shots, speaking into his radio. He picks up the same object that fell to the ground before and returns to Scott’s prone body, dropping the object near Scott’s feet as another officer enters the scene.
Scott had four children, was engaged and had been honorably discharged from the U.S. Coast Guard. There were no violent offenses on his record, Stewart said. He also speculated that Scott may have tried to run because he owed child support, which can lead to jail time in South Carolina until it is paid.
The FBI and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division are investigating as well. Proving that an officer willfully deprived an individual of his or her civil rights has historically been a tall burden for federal prosecutors, particularly when an officer uses force during a rapidly unfolding physical confrontation in which split-second decisions are made.
The Justice Department spent months investigating the Ferguson shooting before declining to prosecute Officer Darren Wilson in that case. But it’s easier to make cases against officers who use force as an act of retribution or who can make no reasonable claim that their life was in jeopardy when they took action.
North Charleston is South Carolina’s third-largest city, and its population is about half black. Its economy slumped after the Charleston Naval Base on the city’s waterfront closed in the mid-1990s, but the city has bounced back with a huge investment by Boeing, which now employs about 7,500 people in the state and builds 787 aircraft in city.
Braye accused North Charleston police of habitually harass blacks for minor offenses. He hopes the video will help people understand that some officers will lie to save themselves when they do wrong.
“This needs to be the last case,” Braye said. “All you have to do is look at the story that was told before the video came out.”
Smith reported from Charleston, South Carolina. Contributors include Tom Foreman Jr. in Charlotte, North Carolina and Eric Tucker in Washington.