Law professors and their students at the University of South Carolina had intense class discussions this spring as a “case for the ages” began to play out in their state.
North Charleston, South Carolina, became a focal point in the ongoing controversy over police shootings of African-American men when 50-year-old Walter L. Scott was shot several times in the back and killed as he ran from former police officer Michael T. Slager following a traffic stop on April 4. Bystander Feldin Sanana’s video of the shooting was widely televised, bringing international attention to the state and resulting in Slager being charged with murder and fired from the police department. Slager is currently being held without bail.
Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the university’s School of Law, has the distinction of being a former Tallahassee, Fla., police officer and a former investigator in the Florida department of education’s office of the inspector general. Since becoming a law professor Stoughton has published scholarly articles on the regulation of police in journals including the Minnesota Law Review and the Virginia Law Review. Despite his background in law enforcement, Stoughton tells Diverse the video “was so far beyond the range of acceptable police conduct, it was really quite disturbing.”
Stoughton adds, “Before the video was released the initial reports were that it was a tragic and frightening series of events involving a struggle … but it was a complete shock that what was described in the report did not match what was on the video.”
Joseph Wideman, president of the Black Law Students Association at the University of South Carolina, recalls that the shooting “did spark discussion” in the various classes. “I watched the video seven or eight times. It was kind of hard to believe. I couldn’t help wonder what if there wasn’t a video,” says Wideman, who is going into his third year of law school and hasn’t decided what area of the law he will pursue. “These incidents have sparked more interest for some of my colleagues to go out and fight for the rights, not just of minorities, but of everybody,” he adds.
Wideman points out that the Black Law Students Association was so concerned that the group organized a silent protest on Monday, April 13, which, according to the invitation letter sent to organizations throughout the state, was intended “to bring awareness to the injustice committed against the life of Mr. Scott.” The letter also stated, “Although we know the importance of law enforcement across the nation, these and other recent events throughout our country require the students in South Carolina to bring attention to the need for balance between the duties to protect and serve, and the rights of the citizens those duties were established to protect.”
To participate, all students and community members were asked to wear a green shirt, to signify the color Mr. Scott was wearing when he was shot and killed. The organizers also asked participants to wear nametags that read “My Name is Walter Scott.”
Enter the judge
The next phase of the case is of particular interest to legal observers in the state. Chief justice Jean Toal, the first female chief justice in the state’s history, recently appointed Judge Clifton B. Newman of the South Carolina Circuit Court to preside over all legal matters in the case. Newman is one of five African-American Circuit Court judges out of 49 in the state.
The 64-year-old Newman is a former prosecutor and has been a circuit court judge for more than 14 years. In a statement announcing the appointment, Toal said Newman will have overall jurisdiction in the case, “to decide all matters pertaining to this case.”
“I know him. He’s a good judge, and he’s been a circuit judge for a long time,” says Kenneth Gaines, a law professor who focuses on criminal trial practice and trial advocacy. “He will be fair, and I think Judge Toal was trying to get ahead of the situation and make sure the appearance of fairness is in place,” Gaines tells Diverse.
With a population of about 98,000, the city of North Charleston, according to its website, is the third largest city in South Carolina, has led the state in retail sales for 21 years and is almost evenly divided racially—42 percent White and 47 percent Black. However, it also represents a painful part of the state’s racial history. Historians estimate that 40 percent of the country’s African slaves landed on nearby Sullivan’s Island, which also held the country’s largest slave market.
The footage showing Scott being repeatedly shot in the back in broad daylight harkened back to the past—until local officials announced Slager’s arrest for murder within hours after the video was reviewed by law enforcement.
Bridging the gap
All of those interviewed agreed that the video and swift action of officials were key elements in the peaceful way the community responded and were a marked difference from previous cases in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md., where violence erupted.
“The Charleston Police Department and the local prosecutor as well as the mayor of North Charleston have done a very good job of receiving, respecting and responding to community concerns,” Stoughton says, adding a caveat. “With that being said, we haven’t gotten an indictment yet; there’s still a lot of process that has yet to come.” He also notes that the reason the arrest came swiftly was “because a bystander happened to be walking by and happened to have the presence of mind to turn on his cell phone camera.”
Eboni Nelson, a law professor whose courses include Race, Class and Education and who is faculty adviser to the Black Law Students Association, says many of her students are all too familiar with questionable police tactics.
“The vast majority of the African-American male students in the law school can recount incident after incident when they have been stopped and searched without what they consider to be probable cause, when their white colleagues have not had such disturbing and humiliating experiences,” Nelson says, adding, “it’s important for those stories to be told … so that all communities can realize what is transpiring in communities of color and how those incidences create mistrust between the police officers and the communities they are serving.”
Nelson adds, “Bridging that gap is what I think a lot of people in this state and hopefully around the country are trying to do.”