UPDATE (MAY 3): I have been convinced that the original post that generated this Comment of the Day went too far. Asking for support for Slager’s defense cannot be unethical: Slager has a right to a defense, and the best one available. My thoughts on that issue, in relation to the Freddie Gray cops, are here. I still think it is obvious that the individual who posted the appeal is doing so for unethical reasons, and is likely a racist, an apologist for a bad cop, and an idiot. But the appeal itself is not unethical, hence the website was not unethical to post it.
How can a website dedicated to paying for the defense of fired police officer Michael T. Slager be unethical, when every citizen is guaranteed the right to a defense before a jury of his peers? I thought I made my ethical objections to the site clear when I wrote:
Slager deserves a fair trial and will get one, but anyone whose immediate reaction to seeing the horrific video is sympathy for this killer cop needs psychiatric treatment, and quickly.
I also made it clear—I thought–that the text of the appeal betrayed a strange and ugly urge to shield Slager from the consequences of his conduct, which was per se, on its face, undeniably illegal under the laws of every state in the land, including South Carolina. He shot a fleeing man in the back; he cannot claim self-defense. Deadly force is forbidden in such situations. Unless Slager noticed that victim Walter Scott had death-ray shooting eyes in the back of his head, Scott’s death is a homicide, and it’s an open and shut case. The only remaining question is what level of homicide.
The appeal said that the poster supported Slager. Wrong. We should not support police officers who shoot citizens in the back. It attempted to minimize Slager’s offense by calling it a “mis-step.” Intentionally shooting someone illegally is not a mis-step. It’s murder. Then the appeal reminded us that Slager has a family, and didn’t do anything bad before he shot a man to death. Well, “first offense” is not a big mitigating factor when it comes to executing people.
However, I appreciate Ethics Alarms newcomer Gustav Bjornstrand‘s comment, though I don’t think this is the best context for it. Here is his Comment of the Day on the post “Unethical Website Of The Month: Michael T. Slager Support Fund.” I’ll be back at the end.
I venture to say that to offer support to Slager is certainly ethical, in and of itself. That is, if one believed that he or anyone deserves monetary support in order to raise a defence. It is conceivable that even someone who was certain he had committed a crime would choose still to aid him in getting good representation. It is unethical, I suggest, for anyone to assume that Slager is guilty of murder before a court decides the issue. It is possible, even if improbable, that there were circumstances prior to Slager firing that may shed light on his decision to fire. Additionally, there are a few other factors that need to be taken into consideration:
It is likely that though Slager will be charged with murder, and tried for murder, that if he is sentenced it will not be for murder. Why? Because police officers are placed in high-stress situations and it is in the nature of the job to have to make snap decisions. To get a conviction of murder requires establishing malice and premeditation, none of which seem to have been a factor here. To imply that he shot a Black man as if on a hunting expedition is, I suggest, unethical and also non-rational because 1) no one can know this a priori and 2) it seems to be an emotional reaction. Emotional responses, though natural indeed, need to be refracted back through a reasoned analysis.
It seems likely that when the trial is completed he will be sentenced for a lesser crime than that of murder. (Here is the Wiki page on the degrees of homicide).
Although reaction is understandable I again suggest that universal appeals to emotion and accusations of ‘murder’, as well as the pre-judgment of a man arrested for a crime, is itself unethical. Sensationalism is easily communicated from person to person as is ‘hysteria’ (in quotations because I am not sure what other word to use but I mean ‘thoughtless reaction’ and one inflected by passion, etc.) and one’s own emotional and unreasoned appeals can infect other people and thus induce them to further unethical statements or actions.
“The video shows him to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt”. (Jack Marshall)
This is certainly so.
“The construct of the legal system is that he’s presumed innocent in the eyes of the law, not in actual human eyes, especially eye-witnesses.”
The ethical issue of declaring a person ‘guilty’ even when it appears to be so (based on eye witness accounts or on other evidence including video) is not that it occurs but what happens when sentiment, passion and emotion are appealed to on a mass-scale. The NY Times ran an article on this topic: the rather ugly side of social media used to enact revenge . One must take into account that opinion can be influenced by certain *hot* words and topics, and we have all been aware of the simmering and conflicted issue of police use of deadly force, issues of racism, etc.
I also suggest that if support to Slager means too support of his wife (who is pregnant), that support is in fact ethical.
It is POSSIBLE (I say this as did Henry Fonda in ’12 Angry Men’) that there are extenuating circumstances and that some additional altercation occurred before Slager drew his gun and fired. It is POSSIBLE that knowing this our understanding of his reaction might be modified. It is POSSIBLE that he did not commit murder but rather some form of manslaughter. It is POSSIBLE that, despite how he and this is being framed, that he is NOT a racist. If any of this is so, then it seems these possibilities should cool our reaction.
It is therefor POSSIBLE that Slager simply made a very bad judgment call in a stressful situation. If this is so, it is ethical to desire to help him as, in fact, it could have happened to any one of us.
1. The text of the appeal didn’t “offer support,” it said that the poster supported him. I have no problem with my tax money supporting state-paid defense attorneys for anyone, guilty or innocent, killers or vandals, who is charged with a crime. I do not, however, support killers, or killer cops, which is what Slager is. The reaction of someone whose first response to a video showing a police officer shooting a fleeing man dead is “I support the cop!” is pure bias, and in this case, bias probably motivated by racism.
2. “It is unethical, I suggest, for anyone to assume that Slager is guilty of murder before a court decides the issue.”
Wrongwrongwrongwrongwrongwrongwrong. I keep explaining why this is wrong, and I will, apparently, until I turn blue and keel over.
It was not unethical to “assume”—the proper words are “recognize,” “realize” and “conclude”—that Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, because he did it on live television and was arrested at the scene. He was never tried. So what? We have eyes. We have brains. He was guilty. John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. A theater full of people saw it, and many of them knew the actor, who was a celebrity. He was shot dead before he could be tried. He was guilty. It is not unethical for history books to say so. Michael T. Slager is shown on a video clearly shooting a man in the back. That’s homicide. He has no defense. He will probably be charged with manslaughter, because the shooting was in the heat of passion. Manslaughter, however, is still homicide. Where I come from, and have a bar license, it is called “third-degree murder.” The court decides the law, and whether a crime can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Human beings are not ethically or logically bound by that same standard in their own conclusions. In this case, the legal and logical conclusions are almost certainly going to converge.
3. “The ethical issue of declaring a person ‘guilty’ even when it appears to be so (based on eye witness accounts or on other evidence including video) is not that it occurs but what happens when sentiment, passion and emotion are appealed to on a mass-scale.”
That’s the Ferguson problem certainly, but not it is not applicable here. I am not emotional about this incident in any way. Unlike the Trayvon Martin and Mile Brown shooting, public opinion isn’t assuming facts. The public can see the crime. The facts can’t be spun, and they aren’t ambiguous.
4. Citing the Justine Sacco case, where a woman’s career and reputation was destroyed because of a tongue-in-cheek tweet, in the context of balatnt police misconduct resulting in a death is bizarre. There is no comparison beyween the two event or the disproportionality of the reactions to them. Sacco harmed nobody. Slager was a professional who betrayed the public trust: the public has every reason to want him to be punished.
5. “I also suggest that if support to Slager means too support of his wife (who is pregnant), that support is in fact ethical.”
Ethical, but irrelevant. One does not gain special license to kill people illegally because you have a wife. If the website was determined to raise money for Slager’s family, then it should have said so. But why would someone’s first concern be the family of the killer cop rather than the family of his victim? This is a strange allocation of sympathy, and one that betrays likely animus toward the dead man, or, uh, something about him.
6. “It is POSSIBLE (I say this as did Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men”) that there are extenuating circumstances and that some additional altercation occurred before Slager drew his gun and fired. It is POSSIBLE that knowing this our understanding of his reaction might be modified. It is POSSIBLE that he did not commit murder but rather some form of manslaughter. It is POSSIBLE that, despite how he and this is being framed, that he is NOT a racist. If any of this is so, then it seems these possibilities should cool our reaction.”
In “Twelve Angry Men,” there is reasonable doubt that the murder was committed by the defendant. That doubt does not exist here. Absent my death ray scenario, it is NOT “possible” that Slager’s shooting Scott was justifiable.
7. “It is POSSIBLE that he did not commit murder but rather some form of manslaughter.”
Manslaughter is homicide, and in many jurisdictions it is called murder. This is a trivial distinction.
8. My post had nothing to do with whether Slager is a racist. I know of no evidence that has indicated that he was. I think anyone applauding Scott’s death is legitimately to be suspected of racist motives.
9. “It is therefore POSSIBLE that Slager simply made a very bad judgment call in a stressful situation.”
I’ll stipulate he did. So what? He’s a police officer who carries a gun and whose job is to protect citizens, not shoot them. The law doesn’t excuse violators for bad judgment, nor should it. He’s still guilty.
10. “If this is so, it is ethical to desire to help him as, in fact, it could have happened to any one of us.”
What? We should help murderers because any one of us might be a murderer? The Golden Rule posits responsible, ethical instincts. Objectively speaking, as a citizen, if I commit murder, I want the state to prosecute, convict and punish me like anyone else. Gustaf is adopting the Golden Rule distortion, “Do Unto Other As They Would Like You To Do To Them.”
11. Not that it controls the issue under discussion, but IndieGoGo representatives have confirmed that the site has pulled the campaign to raise money for Slager’s legal defense.