This Tweet Lays out a Major Problem in the Walter Scott Trial

December 6th 2016

Danielle DeCourcey

With the trial of the former law enforcement officer charged with murdering Walter Scott ending in a deadlock on Monday, Americans are once again questioning if the criminal justice system is equipped to handle police shootings.

After the mistrial was announced, author Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in a tweet that the outcome of Michael Slager's trial wasn't surprising, given the opening statement of the case's prosecutor, Charleston County Solicitor Scarlett Wilson.

Tweet about the Michael Slager mistrial.

The tweet highlights a screenshot of Wilson's opening statements from a New York Times article. Wilson, who is an elected official, concedes that Scott is responsible for for his own death because he got out of the car and "paid the extreme consequence for his conduct."

New York Times writer Alan Blinder called the comments a strategy to "immunize" the jurors from the defense's argument.

"Ms. Wilson’s concession, which she made during her opening statement, was something of an effort to immunize the prosecution from a theory that the defense advanced throughout the trial: that Mr. Scott had acted in ways that made Mr. Slager fear for his life," he wrote.

Nevertheless, Coates' tweet highlights how prosecutors have a complicated relationship with police officers and the public.

A report last year by the Reflective Democracy Campaign from the Women Donors Network found that there are 2,400 elected prosecutors in the United States. In many cases, prosecutors seeking those elected positions must seek the endorsement of police unions.

As a result, some reform advocates believe prosecutors are unfairly biased toward police officers.

Eric Garner Chokehold DeathAfter Eric Garner was killed by a New York City police officer's chokehold in 2014, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James wrote an opinion piece for MSNBC that explained a potential conflict for prosecutors.

"Our justice system allows district attorneys to be charged with the great responsibility of prosecuting the very same police officers they work side-by-side with every day and whose union support they seek when running for reelection," wrote James in 2014.

A grand jury did not indict the officer who killed Garner, and neither did a grand jury in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed just months after Garner. Last year the Rice family accused the prosecutor of manipulating the grand jury away from an indictment. "It has been clear for months now that Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty was abusing and manipulating the grand jury process to orchestrate a vote against indictment,” the family said in a statement.

FILE - In a Monday, Dec. 1, 2014 file photo, Tomiko Shine holds up a picture of Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy fatally shot on Nov. 22 by a rookie police officer, in Cleveland, Ohio, during a protest.
The Washington Post's Radley Balko outlined cases where police retaliated against prosecutors for bringing charges against officers.

Last year, the district attorney's office in Albuquerque, New Mexico brought charges against two police officers in the shooting death of a homeless man. Prosecutors were soon shut out of meetings with city officials in another police shooting case, and received conflict of interest complaints from the police department in another unrelated case, according to Balko's reporting.

Police groups and the police union in Salt Lake City, Utah promised to back another candidate after a prosecutor brought charges against officers for the deadly police shooting of a woman in 2013.

Some lawmakers have called for independent prosecutors to tackle police shootings.

In October, the New Jersey state Senate passed a bill that would require the state attorney general to prosecute cases where officers were involved with a death. The bill is still moving through the state legislature.

"Any investigation of police-involved fatalities should be fair, it should be thorough and it should result in justice being served," one of the bill's sponsors, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, told NJ.com. "It's also important that the public has faith and confidence in the impartiality of these investigations."


Last year, Democrats in U.S. House called for states to require independent prosecutors in cases of police shootings. They introduced an unsuccessful bill that would have reduced federal funding to police departments that don't use independent prosecutors.

"We need reform. Asking local prosecutors to investigate the same local police with whom they work so closely is a conflict of interest," Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) told The Hill last year. "Even if they handle such investigations appropriately, there will continue to be a perception of bias."

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