The murder trial of a former South Carolina policeman who shot an unarmed black motorist last year opens on Monday with jury selection, putting the national spotlight back on a case that dramatized the issue of racial bias in law enforcement.
Michael Slager, a white North Charleston police officer, was arrested and charged with murder in April 2015 when a bystander’s cellphone video emerged that appeared to show him firing eight times at the back of a black man who was fleeing from him.
Slager, now 34, has pleaded not guilty and was released from jail on bond in early January.
In pretrial motions, Slager’s defense lawyers said the officer was on patrol in what they described as a dangerous neighborhood when he stopped Walter Scott, 50, for driving a car with a broken brake light.
When Scott got out of his car and fled, Slager said he chased the black man on foot and hit him with a stun gun at least twice.
Defense attorneys will say Slager felt threatened when Scott grabbed the stun gun after a struggle and pointed it at the officer.
The video of Scott’s death helped trigger a public outcry that flared after the killings of unarmed black men in Missouri, New York and elsewhere.
Slager’s trial is likely to renew national scrutiny on the treatment of minority groups by law enforcement agencies across the United States.
“The whole world is watching these decisions as so many policemen having gotten away with killing a black man,” James Johnson, president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Action Network, said in a phone interview.
About 180 prospective jurors were expected to report on Monday to the Charleston County Judicial Center in neighboring Charleston before a panel of 12 is selected, according to court documents. The pool initially included about 600 people.
Lawyers filed a flurry of motions and documents in recent weeks asking the judge to move the trial out of Charleston, saying publicity surrounding the case and possible protests outside the courthouse could prejudice a jury.
Judge Clifton Newman said last week that he would not sequester jurors because he did not want to keep them away from their homes on Nov. 8, Election Day, and during the holidays if the trial lasts that long, local media reported.
Slager also faces federal charges in a U.S. District Court in Charleston. A trial date has not been set.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Von Ahn)