Oped: Justice delayed in South Carolina

rryl Wellington
Tribune News Service

A pall has been hanging over my hometown of Charleston, S.C., since last Friday, when a jury made up of 11 whites and a lone African-American failed to reach a verdict in the case of Michael Slager, the police officer who was videotaped fatally shooting an unarmed black man, Walter Scott.

Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, left, sits with his attorneys Andy Savage, Don McCune, and Miller Shealy, right, at the Charleston County court in Charleston, S.C., Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. Judge Clifton Newman declared a mistrial after the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Slater shot and killed a black motorist. (Grace Beahm/Post and Courier via AP, Pool)

Black Charlestonians feel that justice has been delayed, and fear that justice will be denied.

Charleston has earned a reputation for grace and poise in the face of tragedy. After the shooting of Scott and, a few months later, the murder of nine much-loved community members at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city remained a model of social decorum. Demonstrations were peaceful and respectful. Family members of the victims of the church massacre publicly forgave the accused killer, Dylann Roof, in a show of Christian magnanimity that amazed the world.

Conquer racism with faith, love and hope

But for the last few days even the very religious African-American community in Charleston has been haunted by misgivings, wondering whether forbearance is really the right response, and whether justice for black people is even possible in the courtrooms of America.

By now, millions of Americans have seen the video at the center of the case.

On April 4, 2015, Officer Slager stopped Scott, who was driving in North Charleston with a broken tail light. Scott fled his car after the stop. Video shot by an unseen bystander clearly shows Slager firing his gun at Scott from afar, as Scott runs away.

The video then shows Officer Slager indifferently handcuffing Scott while he lies dying. And it shows Slager moving a Taser nearer to Scott's fallen body.

At trial, Slager testified that he shot Scott because he was in "total fear." He did not explain how an unarmed suspect threatened him from 17 feet away. Regarding tampering with evidence by moving the Taser, Slager testified, "I don't remember doing that."

When the trial began in early November, many black Charlestonians received the news that the jury would be overwhelmingly white with equanimity, believing the facts would speak for themselves.

Even Fox News host Sean Hannity seemed to think Slager's conviction was inevitable. "You do not shoot an innocent man in the back eight times in cold blood like this," Hannity said. "If he's not a threat to the officer, or threat to anybody else, there is never a justification."

Mistrial declared in black motorist’s shooting

Slager will face a new trial, and a separate civil-rights case brought by federal prosecutors. But after recent failures to bring police to justice in the deaths of Eric Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and a mistrial in the case against Officer Ray Tensing, the Cincinnati cop who shot an unarmed black driver, the Slager case looks like part of a bad trend. The jury's inability to reach a unanimous verdict even on the lesser charge of manslaughter leaves some people wondering whether predominantly white juries will always choose to protect police officers, despite objective evidence. Has this country moved beyond the notions of white supremacy that characterized the old South?

These are dark times. But a candle still burns with hope that America can move toward justice for all, even in Charleston.

— Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet, journalist and writing fellow at the Center for Community Change.