CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A lawyer for a South Carolina police officer charged with murder after he was captured on video shooting a fleeing man in the back is trying to change the public’s perception of what happened.
During a bail hearing Thursday, defense attorney Andy Savage said small amounts of cocaine were found in Walter Scott’s system after he was killed, and he suggested that Scott tried to take North Charleston officer Michael Slager’s Taser and use it against him.
The judge hearing the case said he’ll decide at a later time whether to release Slager on bond.
The hearing produced the defense’s first attempt to put some of the blame for Scott’s killing on the dead man himself. Over the past five months, discussion of the case has been dominated by the cellphone video made by a bystander. The video shows Scott scrambling to his feet and starting to run away before Slager shoots eight times at his back.
But prosecutors vigorously disputed Savage’s characterization of Scott. Solicitor Scarlett Wilson pointed out there wasn’t enough cocaine in Scott’s system to be intoxicating and Scott “had no interest in Tasing Mr. Slager.”
“He wanted to get away.”
Wilson called Slager “a firing squad and executioner” and said he planted evidence, taking his Taser from where it fell and dropping it near Scott’s body hundreds of feet away.
The hearing provided Scott’s family with their first face-to-face encounter with Slager since the shooting, which happened after the officer pulled Scott over for a broken brake light April 4. Scott’s family has said he might have run because he owed child support and didn’t want to go to jail.
Scott’s mother, Judy Scott, fought back tears as she told the court, “My heart is totally broken today. I cannot hug my son anymore. That was my son murdered without mercy, no mercy at all.”
Savage urged the judge to allow his client to post a bond and remain under house arrest. He said Slager, who has a wife and three children, has no criminal record, was an exemplary officer, and poses no flight risk because he wants to return to court to clear his name.
“We believe, as Mr. Slager believes, we have an excellent case to defend the allegations,” he said.
Judges considering bail generally weigh whether a suspect is a risk of committing other crimes or a risk of fleeing.
Slager, 33, has been in solitary confinement since his arrest. He was fired after the shooting, which inflamed the national debate about how blacks are treated by law officers.
Slager faces 30 years to life without parole if convicted of murder. There were no aggravating circumstances such as robbery or kidnapping, so the death penalty doesn’t apply in the case, the prosecutor has said.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Scott’s family called for peace, an act some have credited — along with the officer’s speedy arrest — with staving off the protests and violence that have erupted in other cities where black men have died following encounters with police. If Slager is released, some community leaders said that could change rapidly.
Savage also hinted at another defense: He remarked that the North Charleston police department requires officers to make three traffic stops a day for minor violations such as burned-out brake lights or radios blaring too loudly.
When Slager pulled Scott over he was “nothing other than a professional law enforcement officer carrying out the command of a superior,” Savage said.
An attorney for Scott’s family said if that is true, North Charleston shares the blame for Scott’s death because authorities had no reason to harass him.
Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.
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