Jonathan Oberman, a professor who trains public defenders at Cardozo Law School, also scoffs at Vance’s reasoning. “There are conflicting stories from a witness?” he says. “Okay — then just apply the same standard to poor and low-income people and let them derive the same benefit.”
Maybe it was Walter Scott’s fault. Maybe he did something to make Officer Michael Slager, of the North Charleston Police Department, in South Carolina, shoot him in the back. Maybe the fearsome Scott attacked Slager, nearly overpowering him and wrestling away his Taser, as Slager reported. Yet in Thursday’s newly released video, showing Scott undergoing a routine traffic stop for a broken taillight, there is nothing of that terrifying creature. Nor is he present in that other video, now imprinted on the national consciousness, showing Scott lumbering away, slower than his fifty years, with the Taser wires still trailing him as Slager all too calmly fires off eight rounds. We squint and look closer: Did the officer really drop his stun gun by the dying man’s body, fabricating a ready-made cover for murder?
Such mythmaking and forced recantation—the story of the dangerous black man who turns out not to have been dangerous—has become commonplace. Tamir Rice was a teen-age thug who reached into his waistband for a pistol, leaving Officer Timothy Loehmann no choice but to kill him. Then we saw the baby-faced twelve-year-old with the toy gun, and it became clear that Loehmann, previously deemed psychologically unfit to carry a weapon as a police officer, had shot the boy with no real warning, moments after arriving on the scene. John Crawford was allegedly threatening shoppers in a Walmart with a rifle and waving it aggressively toward Officer Sean Williams, who also had no choice but to kill him. Only the store video revealed that Crawford was holding an air rifle from the sporting-goods section and chatting on his cell phone when the police swept in. Only the video allowed us to see the man lay down his BB gun and try to crawl away.
We persuade ourselves that these black men must have done something to deserve being shot. Perfect victims, as advocacy lawyers know too well, are hard to find. Walter Scott owed back child support. He had had skirmishes with the law—one arrest, thirty years ago, for assault and battery, and a slew of others for nonviolent offenses, including failure to appear in court and to pay child support. But, if he wasn’t a delinquent father—if he didn’t steal cigarillos, as Michael Brown did, or sell loose cigarettes, as Eric Garner did—then surely he was guilty of something else. Stories that would beggar belief if the victim were a person we recognized—someone white, or at least wearing a tie—are tucked quickly away when the bleeding are not our kind of people. (Never mind that Scott was a veteran of the Coast Guard, like the officer who shot him.)