Jury nullification, which occurs when a jury seems to ignore evidence or the law, was common in the segregated South. That came to mind with Monday's mistrial in the case of a white South Carolina police officer caught on video fatally shooting a fleeing, unarmed black man after stopping him for driving with a broken taillight.
Too many times to count between Reconstruction and the civil rights era, white defendants accused of crimes that left a black person cheated, abused, or dead, were acquitted by all-white juries whose members could not see past race in assessing the evidence put before them.
Though there was one black person on the jury considering the fate of Michael T. Slager, the outcome was similar when a mistrial was declared in a case that was further complicated by the defendant's being a policeman. History also shows juries are routinely reluctant to question the actions of an officer who had to act swiftly in a perceived life-or-death situation.
Slager was accused of murder and manslaughter in the death of Walter L. Scott, whom the North Charleston, S.C., police officer stopped on April 4, 2015. A struggled ensued. Scott's family says he likely feared being arrested for failing to pay child support. What happened next was recorded on the phone camera of a passerby.
Scott is seen on the video running from Slager, who raises his Glock pistol and fires eight shots at the fleeing man in about three seconds. Scott, at least 17 feet away, is hit five times in the back. Slager testified he fired his gun after Scott grabbed his Taser. "I see him with a Taser in his hand as I see him spinning around," the officer said. "That's the only thing I see: that Taser in his hand."
But Slager was either lying or delusional about his fatal encounter with Scott. The video also showed him dropping his Taser next to Scott's body. It seems Slager has a fondness for the electrical device that can temporarily paralyze. Records show he accounted for 4 percent of all Taser use in 2014 by the 340-member North Charleston police force.
The jury saw that video at least a dozen times during the trial. But three days into deliberations its foreman, the lone black person on the panel, told the judge that one juror would not agree to convict Slager of either murder or a lesser charge of manslaughter, which would allow a sentence as little as two years. Urged to continue deliberating, the next day the jury reported that a "majority" was now undecided.
A mistrial was declared, which means Slager will get another day in court. In fact; more than one. He also faces federal charges of depriving Scott of his civil rights. Meanwhile Scott's mother says she is putting her trust in a higher authority. "We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses," she shouted after the court proceedings ended with a hung jury. "He will get his reward. I'm just waiting on the Lord."
The unsatisfactory outcome of the Slager trial, with his guilt or innocence still up in the air despite what appeared to be convincing evidence to come to a conclusion, has left a bad taste in the mouths of many Americans, in particular those who ask whether black lives matter as much as others. Better police training and procedures factor into that answer. But so does addressing prejudice.