There are times when you have to ask, “What if?”
What if it had rained the day President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade wound its way through Dallas? What if Martin Luther King had not walked outside his Lorraine Motel room until night on that fateful day in 1968?
There’s another “what if” many people are asking now. What if there were no video of the killing of another apparently unarmed black man by a white South Carolina police officer?
The video shows North Charleston Officer Michael Slager standing in the shooter position, calmly taking aim and firing eight shots at 50-year-old Walter Scott. Four of the bullets struck Scott in the back before he collapsed to the ground and died.
Slager was unaware that a courageous young man was recording most of the incident. Later, Slager’s report on the incident appeared to contradict what everyone has seen on the video.
What if there were no recording? What if the young man was afraid of retaliation from law enforcement and chose not to share what he recorded?
The theory among many is that the officer’s account that he was struggling with Scott over the officer’s stun gun would have been enough to convince a grand jury that it was a justified shooting.
The video appears to be a slam dunk for prosecutors charged with advancing the murder charge levied on Slager. Again, look at the video. The man who was shot didn’t appear to be a threat to the officer who unleashed a volley of eight bullets at the slow-fleeing man.
But this is not a slam dunk case for the dead man and his family. Police officer shootings are never that way.
We have not seen the police car dashboard video of the incident. If it shows the victim merely shook hands with the officer, that could sway some people to believe the officer felt threatened.
The other question is why in the world did Scott run away from officer? That is going to be a big deal. I can see this comment from Slager: “Your honor, I thought he was armed, and when he started to run, I was concerned that he could be armed and dangerous to some of my fellow officers and the public.”
Even though the video shows Slager apparently tossing evidence near Scott’s lifeless body, he may still have a plausible defense, video or not.
What if a camera were around when, as the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office says, a 22-year-old man in its custody, handcuffed behind his back and placed in the back of a squad car, was able to produce a gun and shoot himself in the back? No video. But what if there were one?
In a majority of instances, we want to believe our law enforcement officers because they put their lives on the line every day. That’s why there were such public expressions of sadness recently here when Deputy U.S. Marshal Josie Wells was shot and killed while doing his job.
But wayward law enforcement officers, who have the power of life and death over anyone they stop, have to be held to the high standards that we give them.
It will probably be close to a year before there will be a trial in the South Carolina case. By that time, Scott will be turned into such a villain that the commentary will be that he should have been in jail.
I still believe there is a greater-than-average chance that this case can turn on a dime, and the officer will not be convicted of murder. He may get a lesser charge or walk free.
And, if Slager is found not guilty or a jury goes after a reduced charge, it will be one of the most troubling decisions in criminal justice history — and who knows how such a decision will be met by the public? But, that’s another “what if.”
Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.