Walter Scott murder trial opens with nearly all-white jury

The murder trial of a white former police officer who shot an unarmed black motorist eight times as he ran away from a traffic stop opened on Thursday against a backdrop of violence by and toward police across the nation.

Cellphone video captured police officer Michael Slager shooting Scott as he ran away

Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, second from right, stands in the courtroom Thursday in Charleston, S.C. (Grace Beahm/Post and Courier via Associated Press)

A man riding with a motorist who was fatally shot by a police officer while running away from a traffic stop testified Thursday that he doesn't know why his friend tried to flee.

"That's a question I would like to ask him. Unfortunately, I can't. He was murdered," said Pierre Fulton, who worked with Walter Scott at a distribution warehouse and was riding in the front passenger seat when Michael Slager, a North Charleston, S.C., police officer, pulled them over for a broken taillight in April 2015.

A bystander's cellphone recording of Scott's death stunned the nation as the images spread on social media. Slager, who is white, faces 30 years to life if convicted of murder in the shooting of Scott, who was black. He also faces separate federal charges including violations of Scott's civil rights.

Fulton said Scott surrendered his driver's licence and stepped out of the car. Slager then ordered Scott to get back in again, and he complied. Then, as the officer was checking the information, Scott bolted.

"The next thing you know, he was out the door," Fulton said.

The gunshots rang out a short time later, he said.

While sitting in the car, Scott called his mother on his cellphone.

8 shots fired

"He didn't sound very good. He sounded in distress," Jury Scott, 73, told the jury as she fought back tears.

"He said, 'They were Tasing me.' I heard him groaning like he was in excruciating pain several times," she said. "I told him, 'You know North Charleston policemen, so just do whatever they say."'

Ninth Circuit solicitor Scarlett Wilson, right, says Slager was not justified in shooting Scott as he ran away. (Grace Beahm/Post and Courier via Associated Press)

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said Slager fired eight times after failing to subdue Scott with a stun gun; five of the shots hit Scott in the back and buttocks.

The bystander's video showed Scott, 50, being felled from a distance. It did not capture the entirety of the encounter; nor did the dash cam video from Slager's cruiser, which recorded only the traffic stop itself.

Defence attorney Andy Savage says jurors should ask themselves why Scott fled from Slager after being pulled over. (Grace Beahm/Post and Courier via Associated Press)

Jurors watched that dash cam video in court Thursday. It shows Scott suddenly running from his car and out of view after Slager goes to his cruiser to check the licence.

North Charleston police Sgt. Scott Hille, called by the prosecution to introduce the police video, was asked by the defence if it showed anything unprofessional in Slager's behaviour in handling the stop.

Hille replied: "Not that I can think of, sir."

'Decision to go too far'

Scott's family members and friends were the first to take the stand. His fiancée, Charlotte Jones, called him a "loving and kind person." Neighbour Arthur Heyward, who had just sold Scott the car, called him "a good friend and neighbour. We looked out for each other."

Wilson told the jury of 11 white people and one black man in her opening statement that even if Scott wrestled with Slager over the stun gun, that provocation did not justify being shot to death.

"If Walter Scott had not resisted arrest, he wouldn't have been shot. He paid the extreme consequence for his conduct. He lost his life for his foolishness," she acknowledged.

Slager, 34, is standing trial on a murder charge in the April 2015 shooting death of 50-year-old Walter Scott. (Grace Beahm/Reuters)

But she said Slager must be held accountable for "his decision to go too far — his decision to let his sense of authority get the better of him."

Defence attorney Andy Savage countered that Slager "earned a reputation of excellence" in his five years with the North Charleston police, and he sought to pin responsibility on Scott.

Afraid to return to jail

"Why did he choose not to respect the request to stay where he was? That's something that I hope you consider," Savage told the jurors. "It wasn't Mr. Slager who was angry and full of animosity."

The family has said Scott may have tried to flee because he was worried about having to go back to jail for missing child support payments. Savage called that "pure speculation," and said there was no way Slager could have known Scott was unarmed.

"He never had a chance to pat him down. He never had a chance to frisk him," he said.

An attorney for the Scott family, Chris Stewart, told reporters after the court adjourned following a full day of statements and testimony that the family is not concerned a nearly all-white jury is hearing the case.

Slager is seen firing Scott as he runs away in this still image from widely circulated cellphone footage. (Feidin Santana via Reuters)

"All you need in this case is everything all juries have: two eyes and a brain. It doesn't matter what colour they are, because they have eyes that can see that videotape," he said.

Just how much the broader issues of race, violence and law enforcement should be raised during the Slager trial was discussed by attorneys as Judge Clifton Newman heard some final motions in the case.

"It's important we not go down the slippery slope of every officer-involved shooting," Wilson argued. "The only thing that is relevant is what the defendant did that day and what was going through his head at the time."