BY AMY SINGER, PH.D, AND KRISTINA DENIUS, JD
The Walter Scott Shooting Trial: A Trial Consultant’s Observations
On April 15, 2015, Walter Scott, a 50-year-old unarmed black man, was pulled over by a white police officer, Michael Slager, in North Charleston, SC, for having a broken tail light. During the traffic stop, there was an altercation over the taser. While trying to flee the scene, Scott was shot five times in the back and killed. Unbeknownst to Slager, a passing motorist, “sensing there might be trouble” pulled over and started videotaping with his cell phone.
As in the similar Castile case in Minnesota, millions of people viewed the video. There was extensive media coverage and racially charged protests labeling this as a racial incident. Slager’s attorney, Andy Savage, hired a Charlotte based jury consultant to conduct trial research. Charlotte’s Live 5 News introduced the jury consultant in this way.
Focus groups are excellent ways to identify and zero in on the biggest detriments to a client’s case. Once those problem areas have been identified, the attorney can shape his/her case trial strategy with solutions to those problem areas. In this case, the focus groups revealed that the biggest hurdle Slager had to overcome with the jury is the ‘false narrative’ that this was a racially motivated crime.
Bull, a CBS television series about litigation psychology, explored a similar issue in a recent episode about jury/gender bias. The plot of that episode centered on a female commercial airlines pilot who was involved in a disastrous crash that killed everyone on board but her. In the pre-trial litigation focus groups conducted by Dr. Bull, the participants felt she was at fault for the crash. Dr. Bull ultimately exposed a jury gender bias amongst the participants. When the case was run before a focus group where the jurors were told the pilot was a male, the focus group exonerated the pilot. Dr. Bull then knew that he must overcome this gender bias if there are any hopes for success for his client at trial. And in typical Bull fashion, he successfully does this.
Juror Perception of the Videotape is the Key to the Case:
The trial began last month. The prosecution immediately presented the cell phone video and as reported by the New York Times, reactions were tense. The prosecution closed their case with a frame-by-frame, slow-motion rendition of the videotape. Michael Slager testified that the videotape does not accurately portray “the whole story” of the events. He argued that when Scott gained control of the taser, his life was threatened, and he had to keep firing until the threat was over.
What happened with the taser? Why did Scott run? Why fire eight shots? Would the shooting have occurred if the policeman had known there was a witness videotaping? Did Slager actually plant the taser? How will the jury decide what actually happened here? Does any of this matter?
We just found out that a mistrial was declared. There was one holdout. What influenced that one juror to hold out? Was it this person’s interpretation of the video? Perceptions based on racial attitudes? There was one person of color on the jury; do you believe that person was the holdout?