BLACK VOICES

Prosecutor In Walter Scott Shooting Rates 'Zero With The Black Community'

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson did "not have time" to explain her record.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson

There's no question that South Carolina police officer Michael Slager fired the five shots that killed Walter Scott as he fled in April. An infamous video clearly shows that. What local African-American leaders are asking is whether chief prosecutor Scarlett Wilson will convince a jury to convict the white cop for the murder of a black man.

Wilson's relations with African-Americans are very poor, those leaders say. She's "zero with the black community," in the words of James Johnson, president of the National Action Network's South Carolina chapter.

They apparently have their reasons. Local activists contend that the county solicitor has never personally tried a case against a white man who committed a crime against a black man. They accuse her of being too cozy with the police.

Slager's bond hearing is set for Thursday. The hearing will likely determine whether he'll spend the time leading up to his murder trial behind bars.

If Wilson, a white Republican who serves as solicitor for Charleston and Berkeley counties, makes a strong case for the judge to deny bond, it might boost her reputation among blacks and possibly stave off disruptions, said local pastor Thomas Dixon.

"If this guy gets bond, with all of the work we've done trying to keep the community calm, we might have a problem," said Dixon, who co-founded The Coalition: People United To Take Back Our Community. "If she's instrumental in making that [a denial of bond] happen, she might get some sort of reprieve."

Michael Slager
Michael Slager

Frustration with Wilson rose in April when a witness's video of Slager shooting at a fleeing Scott contradicted earlier official explanations of the altercation.

Slagar had claimed that he used his gun after Scott fought with him for control of his Taser. Soon after the video surfaced, the North Charleston police department fired the officer.

At that point, black leaders turned their attention to Wilson and urged her to recuse herself. They cited her office's failure to bring charges against officers in two previous shootings of black men as reason for her to step away from the Slager case. She refused, and a grand jury indicted Slager for first-degree murder in June. 

The origins of Wilson's credibility problem lie in her record since her appointment as solicitor in 2007 following her predecessor's death. (She won election in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012.)

Officers emerged unscathed from the two disputed shootings on her watch. Activists from the National Action Network and NAACP who reviewed Wilson's record told The Huffington Post that they found no prior examples of her personally prosecuting a white man for a crime against a black man. 

"Scarlett Wilson has never prosecuted a white man for any horrific crime against a black victim. She's incapable of doing it," said Ed Bryant, president of the NAACP's North Charleston chapter and one of those who called on Wilson to recuse herself. "The world's eyes are on Charleston, but she's not going to change one iota."

HuffPost looked at Wilson's record and found only one example of her personally trying a case in which an African-American was the victim of a crime. That was the case of William Dickerson, a black man who was sentenced to death for torturing and stabbing to death his childhood friend Gerard Roper.

Wilson told HuffPost that the data about her record are wrong, but declined to provide any example to back up her claim.

"I simply do not have time to look into all the stats right now," Wilson said in an email. She was preparing for the Slager hearing, she said, and "will not have time to discuss this further."

Miller Shealy, a defense attorney and former Charleston School of Law professor, said that Wilson has done everything within her powers to hold Slager responsible and state ethics rules limit what she can publicly say about the case.

"I'm not sure what they want her to say. She's charged the guy with murder and there's not really anything else she can do," Shealy told HuffPost. "She's handled it under the law the way she has to."

Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof is escorted from the police department on June 18, 2015, in Shelby, South Carolina.
Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof is escorted from the police department on June 18, 2015, in Shelby, South Carolina.

Next year, Wilson is expected to personally try another very high-profile case of white-on-black crime: the murder trial of Dylann Roof, who allegedly killed nine black Emanuel AME churchgoers in Charleston in June, two months after Scott's death. 

"Before Walter Scott, we never knew her to reach out to the African-American community for anything. Only because Walter Scott is a high-profile case, now she speaks up about it," said Johnson, of the National Action Network.

Wilson is up for re-election in 2016, and approximately 27 percent of the residents in her jurisdiction are black. County solicitors, like district attorneys, have the power to choose which cases they personally try and to delegate others to assistant prosecutors. Elected prosecutors are presumably well aware of the political benefits of appearing in high-profile cases -- or avoiding unfavorable trials.

Columbia, South Carolina, attorney Desa Ballard argues that Wilson puts politics above justice for all.

"If a prosecutor seeks to curry favor with a wealthy white voter base by choosing to prosecute cases involving white victims only, she is not only unfit as a prosecutor, she is unfit as a lawyer," said Ballard. She alleged in a 2014 complaint that Wilson withheld evidence from defense lawyers. A judge dismissed that complaint. 

In the aftermaths of the two noted shootings, Wilson has said she spoke to the families of Walter Scott and the victims at the AME church. Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said the day after Roof's attack that "there is absolutely no doubt in my mind this is a hate crime."

But some activists think these public displays are insincere. 

"There has been none that has really come by our side," said Muhiydin D'baha, who is active in Charleston's Black Lives Matter movement. "We're dealing with entrenched power structures. If she [Wilson] is really serious, she has the opportunity to talk a little bit more about the laws, policies and procedures."

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