The judge in the murder trial of a white former patrolman who fatally shot a black motorist decided Wednesday to let the jury consider a lesser charge of manslaughter, meaning prosecutors won't have to prove Michael Slager acted out of malice when he shot Walter Scott in the back.
Slager is charged in the April 2015 shooting death of Walter Scott, who fled from a traffic stop and resisted arrest. The final moments of their encounter were captured on a bystander's cellphone video that shocked the nation.
While the jury was visiting the scene of the shooting on Wednesday morning, Judge Clifton Newman told attorneys he would grant the prosecution's request to let jurors consider manslaughter as well as murder.
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South Carolina law defines murder as the unlawful taking of life with malice. In Slager's case — because the prosecution is alleging no aggravating circumstances that could bring a death sentence — murder carries a penalty of 30 years to life.
The prosecution contends that by shooting Scott repeatedly in the back as the motorist tried to run away, Slager showed evidence of malice.
Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of another without malice, punishable by two to 30 years in prison.
Defense attorney Andy Savage did not object in court to the addition of the lesser charge.
After hearing from 55 witnesses, the jurors were taken to the crime scene Wednesday. The vacant lot in North Charleston was the last step before closing arguments Wednesday afternoon in the month-long trial.
The jury — 11 white people and one black man — have already seen a bystander's cellphone video of the shooting multiple times over the course of the trial.
Circuit Judge Clifton Newman told the jurors not to take notes or discuss what they see at the scene. Court officials and one representative each from the defense and prosecution went along, but the media was not allowed to attend.