With the nation focused on the closing days of the long, heated race for the presidency, two trials related to the country’s continued racial divisions have just begun.
The cases are among a series of deaths of blacks in police encounters over the past two years that have raised attention to how police deal with black people. There have been widespread protests, some violent, in cities such as Baltimore, Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, over police killings of black men.
A summary of key aspects of the two cases that will be decided in the days after Tuesday’s election:
Both shootings followed traffic stops in what defense attorneys say were crime-plagued areas.
In South Carolina, former North Charleston officer Michael Slager is charged with murder in the April 2015 shooting death of Walter Scott as he ran from a traffic stop for a broken taillight. Relatives have said Scott, 50, fled because he feared arrest for being behind on child support payments.
Slager told investigators he fired because Scott grabbed his Taser and pointed the stun gun at him as they fought on the ground. Scott was shot multiple times in the back and buttocks.
If convicted, Slager, who is white and 34 years old, faces 30 years to life imprisonment.
In Ohio, former University of Cincinnati officer Ray Tensing is charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter for the July 2015 fatal shooting of Sam DuBose after a traffic stop for a missing front license plate near campus.
Tensing’s attorney has said he feared for his life as DuBose tried to drive away, using his car as “a weapon.” DuBose, 43, was shot once in the head. The defense attorney also told jurors that DuBose was desperate to get away because he had enough marijuana in his car to face a felony conviction.
DuBose had a long history of traffic and marijuana-related convictions, but his family says he wouldn’t have been a threat to a police officer.
If convicted of murder, Tensing, who is white and 26, faces 15 years to life in prison.
THE ROLE OF VIDEO
Video could be pivotal evidence in both trials, with the two sides in each case disputing what can be concluded from it.
The North Charleston shooting was captured on video by a bystander and seen widely via the internet. It shows Scott being shot eight times in the back.
Prosecutor Scarlett Wilson has said the video of Scott’s death is helpful because it “depicts the crime, and we aren’t having to rely just on people’s perceptions.” But she added it isn’t the “be-all and end-all and the case is over. The jury will be able to make up their own mind after seeing the video and hearing the testimony.”
Slager’s attorneys say there is far more to the story than the much-viewed short clip of the shooting. They say it doesn’t show the entire struggle between the two men, doesn’t show what the officer was seeing and is blurry and confusing.
Slager’s attorney Andy Savage opposed its use in trial, calling the video “prejudicial, inflammatory and factually deficient.”
The two sides in the Ohio trial clashed over video in their opening statements Tuesday.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters told jurors the video from the officer’s body-worn camera shows that Tensing violated police procedures and training in shooting an unarmed man who did nothing other than try to drive away. He said in his opening statement that Tensing grabbed DuBose’s seat belt with his left hand and fired his pistol directly at his head with his right and that there was no threat to him.
“Thank God we have a body cam,” said Deters, who released the video publicly last year after Tensing was indicted. He told jurors the video shows that Tensing lied when he claimed he was going to be dragged under the car.
Defense attorney Stewart Mathews countered that the video supports Tensing’s contention that he was under serious threat. He says DuBose pulled his door shut, started the ignition and then pinned Tensing’s forearm when the officer tried to grab the keys out of the ignition.
Mathews also told jurors the body-cam video doesn’t have Tensing’s eye-level view and can’t capture what he was feeling and what his instincts were telling him.
DO JURIES CONVICT POLICE?
Jurors tend to want to give police the benefit of the doubt, recognizing they have dangerous jobs that often require split-second decisions, legal experts say. But convictions do happen.
Former Tulsa County volunteer sheriff’s deputy Robert Bates, age 74, was sentenced in June to four years in prison on a second-degree manslaughter conviction in the April 2015 death of Eric Harris, an unarmed and restrained black man, during a sting operation. Bates, who is appealing, has said he confused his stun gun with his handgun.
Former Portsmouth, Virginia, Police Officer Stephen Rankin was sentenced Oct. 12 to 2½ years in prison for fatally shooting 18-year-old William Chapman II. Rankin shot the unarmed Chapman in April 2015 after responding to a shoplifting call outside a Wal-Mart store.
Philip Stinson, of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, has been tracking on-duty police fatal shooting cases around the country since 2005. Of 77 U.S. police officers charged with murder or manslaughter in that time, 27 have been convicted, 14 in jury trials, he said. Thirteen others pleaded guilty, in some cases to reduced charges.
Fifteen officers have been acquitted by juries, with six acquitted in nonjury bench trials, and charges dismissed in seven others. In one case, a grand jury declined to indict an officer who had been arrested.
The Tensing and Slager cases are among 21 pending outcomes. They include three that ended in mistrials, and prosecutors haven’t decided yet on new trials.