The day a cell phone video led to a murder charge

Technically Incorrect: A police officer in South Carolina appears to shoot a man eight times from behind, while the man is running away. Without video taken by a bystander, there would be only the officer's word.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

North Charleston mayor Keith Summey announcing the murder charge. Channel 2/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Eyewitness evidence used to be nothing more than one person's word.

Technology has changed all that. The words can be less important than the footage captured by a cell phone.

In Charleston, S.C., an apparently unarmed black man was allegedly shot dead by a white police officer after a traffic stop on Saturday. As the New York Times reports, the officer allegedly said that 50-year-old Walter L. Scott had taken his Taser and that he feared for his life.

Then emerged the cell phone video, shot by a bystander. It was handed to the Times by Scott's lawyer.

What it shows is a man running away and the officer, 33-year-old Michael Slager, seeming to shoot him from behind eight times.

Then Slager appears to drop something near Scott's prone body. Could it have been his Taser?

The Los Angeles Times reported that as soon as the video emerged, Slager's lawyer, David Aylor, decided to distance himself from the case.

What is clear is that Slager has now been charged with murder. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said Tuesday, as reported by the local Post and Courier: "When you're wrong, you're wrong. If you make a bad decision, don't care if you're behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision."

For his part, local police chief Eddie Driggers said, according to the Post and Courier account: "It's been a tragic day for many, a tragic day for me. It is not reflective of this entire police department. ... One does not throw a blanket across the many."

The incident could have the potential to inflame the national debate over police departments' use of deadly force, as with the shooting of Michael Brown last year in Ferguson, Mo. Yet this new incident seems more clear-cut than many.

Fired from the force

On Wednesday morning, Summey and Driggers appeared at a very tense press conference, in which Summey announced that Slager has been fired from the force, though the city will pay for health insurance for Slager's wife, who is eight months pregnant. The mayor and the chief praised Scott's family and promised them support.

Asked whether any of the other officers seen in the video had contradicted Slager's account, Driggers said: "To my knowledge, no one was witness to anything but Slager."

Driggers said of the video: "I was sickened by what I saw. And I have not watched it since."

He said he didn't know whether Slager had dropped the Taser near Scott's prone body. The investigation has been turned over to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. Summey took over much of the conference from Driggers, saying that the latter couldn't now comment on details of the case.

Summey intimated that there was more video evidence taken from a police car, evidence he himself hadn't seen.

For about as long as cell phones have been reliably able to shoot video, they have been used to provide evidence. Sometimes it is citizens posting video to YouTube to explain what happened during, say, a routine traffic stop. With the increasing use of bodycams by police, however, sometimes footage is used to dispel suspicions about the police's own actions.

Summey said at today's press conference that the city had already ordered 101 bodycams, and that just this morning the city has ordered an additional 150, an announcement that received applause.

It is hard to watch the footage of Saturday's shooting and see anything other than a horrific miscarriage of justice.

In times gone by, it would have been the word of the bystander against that of authorities. Who would have been believed? The word of, say, a doctor, would have carried more weight than that of a blacksmith.

Now that cell phone footage exists, the supposed credibility of the witness has been superseded by the strength and objectivity of the video evidence.

Updated 12.03 p.m. PT: Added details from the Wednesday morning press conference.