By now we’ve heard lawyers, activists, analysts, journalists, and a list of lay people say it over and over — the video in the Walter Scott police shooting made the difference in the case.
Had it not been for plain, graphic, in-your-face evidence caught on a cellphone camera by Feidin Santana, who was simply on his way to work Saturday morning when he saw what he described on the video as “f*cking abuse,” now-former Officer Michael Slager would not have been arrested and booked on a murder charge. But even with evidence like the Santana video, there are some who are skeptical about whether or not this will be enough evidence to convict Slager.
The skepticism is fair following last year’s non-indictment of the officer who placed Eric Garner in the chokehold that preceded his death, and there was no real difference between circumstances of Garner’s and Scott’s death — both of them had lethal force administered, but posed no threat.
Still, Dan Donovan, the Staten Island New York district attorney who failed to get an indictment against Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the case, was able to wash his hands of the entire incident and was even applauded for getting the cop’s name cleared. He is now campaigning to replace embattled GOP Representative Michael Grimm in the U.S. House.
Another incident is the case of a Black male motorist, who was driving a Hyundai when he was pulled over by police and beaten to within an inch of his life, suffering permanent damage to his skull. It was caught on video as well, but did not result in state charges against the officers who were involved. Instead, there was a groundswell of defense for them and vilification of Rodney King, who dared to beg for the LAPD to stop beating him.
Now, these aren’t the only visually recorded incidents of police abuse that have come out. In fact, there are many, and they did not result in convictions of the police officers involved.
A violent video taken in 2013 of Milwaukee police officer Rodolfo Gomez beating Deron Love while he was handcuffed to a wall resulted in his being charged. But he was eventually acquitted because the defense convinced a jury that he was doing what was necessary to establish control over Love, whom he was trying to get to confess to killing his infant son. Love was found not guilty.
In Philadelphia, a video went viral of a cop punching a woman from behind at a Puerto Rican Day parade. Not only was it not enough to convict, but the cop, Lt. Jonathan Josey, ultimately got his job back. In the incident, Josey claims the woman, Aida Guzman, would not drop a beer bottle and instead sprayed it on nearby police, so he tried to slap it out of her hand. But the video shows him walking up behind her, throwing a haymaker and knocking her off her feet before putting her in handcuffs.
In 2011, Kelly Thomas, a Fullerton, Calif., homeless man who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was beaten and electrocuted with Tasers by three policemen. He died five days later. Fullerton officers Jay Cicinelli and Manuel Ramos were tried for his death but were found not guilty on all charges. Charges against a third officer, Joseph Wolfe, were dropped. Thomas’ father, Ron, is a retired police officer.
These are just a few examples of many in which law enforcement got away with misconduct and in some cases, killing people in the name of keeping law and order — all recorded for the world to see. A good enough defense attorney and enough time was all a jury needed to return an acquittal.
Walter Scott’s case appears to be open and shut. It’s clear that Slager shot him in the back while he was running. The law says that if he does not pose any threat, then lethal force cannot be used. But holes can be poked in that, and defense attorneys will probably try to use what we don’t see to make their claim. Slager claimed that they wrestled and his lawyers will try to build off that, and the possibility exists that it could be enough.
Remember, assuming Slager doesn’t enter a guilty plea, the defense does not have to convince a jury that he is innocent, they just have to introduce doubt in the mind of just one juror. This is why Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo never went to trial: Prosecutors knew they would not or could not convince a jury those cops were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It is also why George Zimmerman went free: the jury could not convict on what prosecutors presented them with.
The evidence against Slager is strong. He has been fired by the North Charleston, S.C., police department, state attorneys are seeking an indictment against him, and even some conservatives seem to be convinced of his guilt. At the same time, FOX News commentator Geraldo Rivera believes Slager will walk because he’s being overcharged.
If they are smart, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) will be very careful as they seek an indictment. With the past year of protests over police violence, the stakes are very high. The entire country saw a video of a man being shot to death and it shocked everyone.
But thanks to this video, this country has something tangible. Black folk didn’t have to be convinced. We knew this all along. But now, the rest of America cannot deny what has been going on in front of their faces. America’s eyes have been pried — and taped open.
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter:@madisonjgray