The execution of Walter Scott by South Carolina police officer Michael Slager was an unambiguous example of racist police abuse. Cell phone footage clearly shows Slager, who is white, pumping eight bullets into the retreating figure of Scott, who was black, as he fled from the officer. The distance between the two at the moment Slager began firing on the unarmed Scott appears to be anywhere from 18 to 20 feet, much too far for Scott to have been any kind of credible danger to the officer. Yet Slager falsely reported that Scott ran at him and attempted to wrestle away his Taser, causing the officer to feel “threatened” and necessitating use of lethal force.
Thanks to the emergence of bystander video proving Slager’s story of self-defense was a lie, federal prosecutors have charged the ex-officer with obstruction of justice, which Slager is attempting to beat by relying on the case of another well-known liar: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Slager’s defense team is pointing to Sessions’ constantly shifting and contradictory congressional testimony to show that their client suffers from the same condition that makes it so hard for the Trump administration official to remember the truth.
The absurd defense is explained in court papers recently filed by attorneys for Slager, who pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating Scott’s civil rights in May. This is basically a last-ditch effort by federal officials to get any jail time for Slager, whom a South Carolina jury refused to convict on charges of murder last year despite an abundance of evidence. The new tack being taken by his legal team is to insist that Slager’s falsified description of his encounter with Scott—which is directly contradicted by cell phone video—wasn’t motivated by self-interest or his desire to avoid jail time. Instead, Slager’s lawyers argue, those seeming falsehoods are a natural consequence of the pressure the officer was under. “A Swiss cheese memory is a symptom of stress,” Slager’s lawyers wrote in court papers, “not an indicator of lying.”
They go on to compare Slager’s truthiness problem with that of Sessions, who over multiple congressional hearings used the phrase “I don’t recall” more than 85 times in response to questions. The attorney general has also backtracked on answers he previously provided under oath, miraculously and quite suddenly remembering details, specifically those that potentially absolve him of guilt, when presented with evidence. After multiple tweaks to his story about Trump campaign officials’ contact with Russian operatives, including denials about taking part in a meeting where campaign aide George Papadopoulos had suggested brokering a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin, Sessions newly recalled that he had, in fact, been involved in the meeting after his memory was rejiggered by “news reports.”
“I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting,” Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee in November. “After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government, or any other foreign government, for that matter.”
It’s curious that Sessions, as writer Eric Levitz notes, “has no clear memory of the meeting, but has a vivid recollection of behaving admirably during it.” Despite the sheer unbelievability of his ever-changing testimony, the attorney general insisted his new insights weren’t straight-up textbook perjury, but an honest failure to retain information, which seems like a problematic issue for a man who heads a department dedicated to getting the facts straight.
“I will not accept and reject accusations that I have ever lied,” Session explained during a November hearing, chalking at least some of his forgetfulness up to the hectic pace of the Trump campaign, “a form of chaos every day from day one.” Sessions added that his “story has never changed. I’ve always told the truth. And I’ve answered every question to the best of my recollection and I will continue to do so today.”
Slager’s lawyers are now seizing on that claim for their own client, essentially stating that if Sessions wants us to believe the nonstop speed of the campaign trail served as a mind eraser, murdering a man in cold blood would be at least as hard on one’s ability to remember events with clarity. His defense team wrote:
“Unlike Slager, who had been in what he perceived as a life and death struggle before he made his statements, Sessions had time to prepare for his congressional testimony, yet still often got it wrong. Why? According to Sessions, he was working in chaotic conditions created by the Trump campaign. This was undoubtedly stressful, though not as stressful as having shot a man to death, or dealing with the aftermath of that, or facing the death penalty or life in prison. As Sessions made clear in his statement, a failure to recall, or an inaccurate recollection, does not a liar make.”
America’s criminal justice system has always been something of a joke for black folks, who are consistently denied a presumption of innocence, fairness in sentencing or equal treatment under the law. Black victims of crime rarely receive justice, and when those crimes—including unjustifiable murder—are committed by cops, punitive action is the exception to the rule. But in Slager’s “Sessions defense,” we see the consequence of having a division charged with pursuing truth be led by a liar whose dishonesty is so transparent he serves as fodder for late-night talk show monologues and comedy skits.
Michelle Mark, writing at Business Insider, notes that Slager’s defense is “somewhat of a taunt to the Justice Department” tasked with handling his prosecution. Each time DOJ officials “call Slager a liar, they could risk appearing to call Sessions, the head of their department, a liar.”
While the Trump administration simultaneously talks out of one side of its mouth about its commitment to “law and order,” it’s become so renowned for its baldfaced lies that criminals can now almost dare it to challenge their own made-up stories. A top-down system of liars, led by a president who spews deception anytime his lips are moving, creates an environment where the very concept of truth is murky and elusive. It’s horrifying enough that the DOJ is being transformed by Sessions et al. to achieve his own anti-black and brown political and ideological agenda. The Trump campaign’s dedication to establishing its own alternative truth holds genuinely terrifying implications for the future, and even less hope of justice, particularly for the already marginalized.
“Like Sessions, Slager never lied or misled anyone,” defense attorneys note in court files. “Like Sessions, he answered the questions that were asked. When he had his memory refreshed, he added the refreshed recollection to his testimony. When he failed to remember certain items, it can be attributed to the stress or chaos of the event during which the memory should have been formed.”
The documents include examples from Sessions’ sworn testimony of moments when his memory supposedly failed him. Those citations, defense lawyers indicate, show just how much Slager and Sessions have in common. They’re basically—I’m paraphrasing here—two lying, racist peas in a pod. “The text…[is] particularly apropos to describe memory’s imperfections,” the court papers note, “and, in fact, could have been spoken by Slager himself.”