Debbie Hines on MSNBC explains the Michael Slager trial and the implications of the lone juror holdout.
Former Charleston, SC police officer Michael Slager, who is on trial for the murder of Walter Scott, after firing 5 shots into Scott’s back, while fleeing from the officer, may get an early Christmas present—his freedom. As of Friday, a jury of 11 white persons and one lone black juror failed to reach an unanimous verdict. Eleven of the jurors support a conviction of either first degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. One lone hold-out states in a letter given to the judge that he or she is unable to come to a guilty verdict and won’t come to a verdict (paraphrased). Judge Newman did not order a mistrial on Friday, December 2. Instead, Judge Newman instructed the jury to go home over the weekend and continue deliberations on Monday, December 5. Michael Slager may have already won his freedom and the right to a new trial with the help of the one lone dissenting juror.
The video taken by a bystander witness showed Slager firing shots into the back of Walter Scott as he ran away 17 feet from the officer, after being stopped for a busted tail light on his car. The video further shows Slager attempting to plant a Taser gun at the feet of Scott following the shooting. No evidence in the trial showed that Scott ever had possession of the Taser. Slager’s testimony stated that he was in fear of Scott. No case is ever a slam dunk. However, this case is a classic example of a first degree murder case. Nonetheless, the jury is deadlocked.
In a case where a jury becomes what it feels is deadlocked, most judges will give or read what is called the “Allen charge” which tells the jurors to continue to deliberate and to keep an open mind. The Allen charge does not allow the other 11 jurors, as in the case of Slager, to coerce the lone juror into changing his or her mind. That would be sufficient grounds for an appeal.
There are several points that are interesting in the Slager trial. In all jury trials, whether criminal or civil, the judge instructs that the foreperson should send notes to the judge whenever there is a question or issue with deliberations. The foreperson speaks for the jury through written notes. So, it is interesting that the lone juror chose to write a separate note to the presiding judge. And it is even more interesting that the note possessed all of the appropriate legal buzz language needed to assist the defendant, in the event the lone juror changes his or her mind and votes with the other eleven for a conviction.
While I hate suggesting conspiracy theories, I do find it strange, for lack of a better word, that this one lone juror has almost made it his cause to declare the defendant not guilty. While that is the right of any particular juror to vote his or her conscience, it seems that there might be more here with this lone juror. The note suggests almost some form of legal training to state the appropriate buzz word language to give a new trial to the defendant, even if a guilty verdict is reached.
Unless a juror later speaks to the media, which often does occur in many high profile cases, the public does not know any information about the juror such as education, occupation, age or other material information. That information is solely known to the lawyers, judge, parties and court room clerks. This lone hold-out appears to be going above and beyond what a hold out juror usually does by letting the foreperson advise the judge of the circumstances.
As the days and perhaps weeks go on, we may come to learn more about the lone hold-out juror. For now, that juror has given Michael Slager his freedom whether through a mistrial, if declared, or a guilty verdict, if rendered. The tone for grounds for appeal are clearly already set by this lone hold-out juror, if he/she has a change of mind to convict Slager.
Judge Newman has indicated if a mistrial is declared, the case will be re-tried. While it is important for closure to the family of Walter Scott that a verdict be rendered, declaring a mistrial now will save the family more heartache down the road. If a guilty verdict is rendered next week, the defendant will undoubtedly appeal. It is better to declare a mistrial now that having to redo a trial several years later.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor. She can be seen on MSNBC, CBS, PBS, Al Jazeera, BET, Fox 5 DC and other news outlets.