The Michael Slager Trial: When The Ethical Course Is To Not Exercise a Right


Michael Slager is the white North Charleston police officer who stopped African American Walter Scott for a taillight violation on April 4, 2015, and in the ensuing events, ended up fatally shooting Scott as he fled the scene, in the back, as recorded on a cell phone video. Of all the many police-involved shootings, this is the least equivocal. Slager is guilty of murder of one kind or another: in South Carolina, there is only one kind, and  mitigating circumstances are reflected in the sentence. He could receive life in prison, or much less time.

But every criminal defendant has the right to be tried by a jury of his peers before the law finds him guilty, and Slager is taking full advantage of the right. In doing so, he is forgoing his last clear chance at redemption. The former officer—he has already been fired for the episode and not just put on paid leave, as is usually the case—is understandably trying to avoid a conviction and jail time, even though, should he be acquitted by some miracle or act of mass hypnosis, it would be certain to provoke even more anger and distrust in the black community, and, I would hope, among non-African Americans as well. A justice system that finds, no matter how it reaches such a conclusion, that an officer who shoots a fleeing man dead like Slager did is not guilty needs to be blown up and seeded with salt. When Slager’s first lawyer saw the video, he quit.

Do you think an acquittal is impossible? Don’t. All that is needed is a jury full of people who “think,” and I use the word generously, like the signers of this petition. I’m pretty sure that there are more than twelve of them available.

Slager knows, or should know, that what he did was wrong. He knows, or should know, that he deserves conviction and punishment. He knows, or should know, that in addition to taking a life by his actions, he has also significantly wounded race relations in the United States and the public’s trust, not just in South Carolina police, but in all police.

Slager’s desperate defense attorney, pledged to provide a zealous representaion of a man whose guilt is indelibly recorded for all to see, is throwing every argument he can think of in front of the jury. Prime among them is that Slager was a dedicated public servant and a good guy, essentially the Ethics Alarms Rationalization List entry known as “Self Validating Virtue”: If Slager did it, it can”t possibly be murder, because good cops like Slager don’t murder people. It is the ultimate circular reasoning, but it’s just about all the defense he’s got.

If Slager is as good a man as his lawyer claims, he should plead guilty. He should accept accountability for what happened, and not continue to blame the victim, Walter Scott. Scott was in arrears in his child support; he struggled with Slager on the ground, he got himself tased and he defied an officer’s lawful orders, but he was running away. Slager testified today that he was in fear of his life. It’s ridiculous. He had a gun, and Scott was not only running from him, he was a good distance away. Obviously the officer was upset by the struggle, angry at Scott, and lost control. Policing isn’t a picnic, and sentencing should show come compassion for a good cop who did a terrible thing. He should not, however, claim that he did the right thing. Juries have believed worse.

It seems harsh to hold it against a man that he takes advantage of all the angles the justice system provides and the right to do so when his life is on the line. But police officers do put their lives on the line, for the protection and well-being of society. I would have great respect and admiration for Michael Slager, a murderer, if he displayed the honesty, courage and integrity to stand up in court and say, “I’m guilty. I lost control,  a man is dead who shouldn’t be, and I am responsible. I am sorry. I apologize to his family, my profession, my community and the nations. I had to be better than that; I was trained to be better. I regret that my wrongful actions have further divided this state and this nation, and undermined the relationship between law enforcement and the African American community.”

Doing that would represent a sincere effort to mitigate the harm Slager has done, and to make amends. Instead, he is exercising his rights.

Too bad.


36 thoughts on “The Michael Slager Trial: When The Ethical Course Is To Not Exercise a Right

  1. But if he was the kind of man who would do that, he wouldn’t have been the kind to murder a fleeing suspect. It speaks for itself on his character, doesn’t it?

      • They do, but I think this is a case where the conduct is so beyond the pale that it’s signature significance. It’s one thing to pull the trigger on, say, a large, if unarmed suspect *coughMichaelBrowncough* charging at you, but it’s another thing to shoot a man in the back as he’s running away. I’m not saying Slager shot him in cold blood, but this is hardly a situation where there’s a gray area in the proper application of force, which is where good cops generally make tragic mistakes. Shoot a man in the front, there’s a chance it’s an honest mistake. Shoot a man in the back? Speaks for itself.

        • “I’m not saying Slager shot him in cold blood,”

          But you are. If you aren’t saying that, then you are admitting this is an issue in which tipped off the scale passions combined with a natural (and necessary) aggression and the man snapped. If you admit that, then you can’t NECESSARILY conclude Slager was a BAD cop…

          He may have been. But you can’t necessarily conclude that.

          • I think we have a different definition of what constitutes a good cop – an essential part of the job is discipline and restraint. This episode is, in itself, signature significance that Slager lacked discipline, which inherently makes him a bad cop.

            • “an essential part of the job is discipline and restraint.”


              “This episode is, in itself, signature significance that Slager lacked discipline”

              Not necessarily.

        • Chase,
          I confess that at times, I am obtuse. What does this mean, ” if unarmed suspect *coughMichaelBrowncough* charging at you, but it’s another thing to shoot a man in the back as he’s running away.” Does that mean you don’t believe Brown was charging the officer? Does that also mean that you believe the officer should have been indicted, tried and convicted for killing the unarmed Michael Brown? Does that also mean you believe in the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative, that Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer is just another pitiful example of the rampart racism in the system targeting black males? Please explain because, as I stated, I can obtuse.


          • I chose to ignore that, and to assume that it was awkwardly stated. Brown was NOT shot in the back. He was large enough to do serious harm with his bare hands. He had already tried to grab the officer’s gun. It’s pretty simple: suspect running away from officer: no threat, shooting is murder. Suspect charging officer, especially giant suspect: threat, reasonable fear, shooting justified.

            • That was the point I was, poorly, trying to make. I was trying to create a contrast with a justified shooting by, we can assume, a good cop thrust into a bad situation, as opposed to this case.

              • But your point about a good cop thrust into a bad situation was sullied by this: “*coughMichaelBrowncough*” That means you have trouble swallowing (thus the cough/gag reflex) the story that Brown charged the officer and the officer use of deadly force was not justifiable. That is a huge difference between the two cases. In the Brown case, the officer was cleared of unreasonable and unjustifiable use of deadly force; however, in the Slager case, there is little doubt that the use of deadly force was unjustified and unjustifiable. The gag reflex in your post seems to put the officer in the Brown case in with Slager.


                • Just my $0.02..I don’t see the “cough, cough” as Chase having trouble swallowing the story, but rather, that others still do. The “coughing” was (IMO) an acknowledgement that there actually ARE vast differences in the 2 situations.

            • Not just charging – but the first shot fired was through Brown’s hand and then through the roof of the officer’s car above the driver’s seat. The only way that’s conceivably explained is that Brown was reaching into the car and in contact with the weapon. That’s far more dangerous than just charging.

                • I would encourage you to read the coroner’s report, it details it there.

                  Brown’s hand was shot though the web between his thumb and palm, front to back, and there was a bullet hole in the in the officer’s car with Brown’s blood and tissue in the bullet hole. There was no stippling on the skin but gunpowder and soot in the wound, indicating the barrel was pressed into the hand when fired.

                  Wilson had said that he shot Brown once in the car and this evidence backs his claim.

                  Brown was shot in the hand, backed out of the car and ran away. Brown ran away, turned, and ran back. Wilson could have shot Brown in the back but did not, indicating this wasn’t a revenge shooting. Wilson shot Brown 5 more times and they were all front to back or top down (as Brown fell), proving they were all shots as Brown came back. The shots hit Brown at 175 to 150 feet away, so Brown was coming fast and had gone at least that far away. Given that Brown had already attempted to disarm Wilson it is beyond any shadow of a doubt Wilson was justified in his fear of Brown.

                  I’m usually quite critical of officers, but I’m not so biased as to not research from original sources, not somebody’s spin. Wilson acted calm and cool. He did not deserve any of what happened to him.

                  • I don’t really need to read the coroner’s report at this point. having been initially misled by news reports, it’s been clear to me for a long time that the shooting was legal, and that Wilson was unfairly maligned. The shocking thing is that the BLM supporters don’t care what the report says, and don’t care what the facts indicate. They still keep the false narrative alone that Brown was a victim of racism and systemic oppression designed to harm blacks. They believe the same about the deaths of Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin, also in the absence of evidence, on in some cases in defiance of it. How does society deal with wilful, persistent, divisive myths?

      • I am not convinced he is a good cop, and I would venture to say that he is probably not a very good person. After he shot an unarmed male running away, he threw what appears to be a gun at the guy to show that the guy was armed to justify shooting him. Either way, the police officer’s claim of justifiable use of deadly force is full of holes.


        • I’m not convinced he’s a good cop either. I’m also, just not convinced he’s a bad cop. And no, I don’t think anyone here is making an argument that the shooting is justified at all. I think the real debate after everything we know, and after we accept Jack’s analysis that this guy, to be ethical, MUST confess and apologize, is how should sentencing fall?

  2. I happened to first see that video on the phone of a friend of mine, a retired police officer and SWAT Team commander. Someone who once made that split-second decision to pull a trigger and take a life to protect another officer. Chris watched that video, looked at me and said, “That’s not a justifiable shooting. That’s a homicide.” That statement from that source stuck with me so the quote is exact. By the way, there’s a geographical error in your post, because North Charleston is in South Carolina.

  3. Call me Sir Synical, but I imagine a guilty plea and the aforementioned apology would also – possibly? – go a bit of a way in the minds of the court, with or without jury, toward mitigating the sentence. A bit? More important, if one were looking ahead, it might make life in prison a bit safer, shorter and somewhat less . . . solitary . . . (for his own protection). It would also bear out the idea that this was a genuine isolated incident, that he will “take his punishment like a man,” and turn into a repentant figure whom people would be less likely to “kick when he’s down.”

    Not likely, obviously, since Slager is going the Not Guilty route already, which will just stretch the story out and give the racists one more reason to hate and blame. I was just thinking that the actions would be ethical, if not the intent — but the outcome would be better for everybody.

    • Yes, there would very well likely be some personal motivators behind such an admission and apology, but there would also very well likely be some actual ethically positive benefits as well. Every individual can decide what would motivate Slager if he were to take that high road…

  4. Do you think an acquittal is impossible? Don’t. All that is needed is a jury full of people who “think,” and I use the word generously, like the signers of this petition. I’m pretty sure that there are more than twelve of them available.

    Full? No, just a few. If a unanimous verdict is required, just one. Enough hung juries and the prosecution realises it can’t get a conviction.

    The defendant or his legal team is betting on there being a high enough proportion of people who will always support the police, unconditionally, plus those who see removal of a black man who was no angel from society as being a positively good thing, so that the odds of a few being on the jury are high enough to take a gamble.

    If unanimity is needed, depending on voir dire and the size of the jury pool, the odds may approach certainty.

    There may also be evidence that it was reasonable to assume the victim was armed. Enough to create reasonable doubt. I don’t know.

    Just remember –

  5. “I was trained to be better”

    Then we could throw on a perjury charge as well! (Sorry, I was sure that you were setting up a punchline with that)

    In all seriousness, though, I’ve been thinking recently about qualified immunity and some of our policing issues (not necessarily the ones related to Slager). It strikes me that maybe we should make attempts to claim qualified immunity an affirmative defense, much like self-defense is to murder. Which is to say that the moment a LEO attempts to suggest they had qualified immunity for a thing, it becomes a the legal equivalent of having admitted they did the thing, and the burden of proof shifts from the prosecuting having to prove they did it, to their defense having to prove they should be entitled to qualified immunity.

    I suppose it doesn’t change the fact you’d still need a prosecutor to bring charges, though.

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