By Dan McCue
(CN) – The judge in the murder trial of a white South Carolina police officer who shot and killed a black motorist during an April 2015 traffic stop on Wednesday ruled jurors can consider a lesser charge of manslaughter when they begin their deliberations.
Judge Clifton Newman’s decision came as the jury was visiting the scene of the shooting Wednesday morning.
Prosecutors had asked Judge Newman to allow jurors to consider manslaughter as well as murder, and the ruling means they won’t have to prove the officer acted with malice when he shot the fleeing motorist in the back.
Michael Slager is charged in the death of Walter Scott, who fled from a Saturday afternoon traffic stop and alleged resisted arrest. The shooting of Scott by Slager was captured on a passerby’s cell phone and the video sparked outrage nationally.
Slager always maintained that he and Scott fought briefly as the officer tried to apprehend him, and that during that tussle, Scott briefly gained control of Slager’s Taser.
Slager says at that point he feared for his life and that was why he opened fire on Scott.
Ultimately, Scott was hit in the back by five bullets. Throughout the trial, the prosecution has maintained that because the motorist was shot repeatedly in the back, Slager displayed malice.
If convicted of murder — which under South Carolina law is defined as the unlawful taking of a life with malice — the former North Charleston police officer faces 30 years to life in prison.
Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of another without malice. If convicted of the lesser charge, Slater faces two to 30 years in prison.
Closing arguments in the month-long trial are expected to begin Wednesday afternoon.