NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – Former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager was sentenced yesterday to 20 years in prison for the fatal shooting of Walter Scott.
Scott was an unarmed black man who ran from his vehicle during a traffic stop. The two struggled once Slager caught him, but a citizen’s video captured Slager firing at Scott in the back as he fled.
U.S. District Judge David Norton ruled that Slager committed second-degree murder and obstruction of justice, when he shot and killed 50-year-old Scott in 2015. The second-degree murder ruling came with a recommended 19 to 24 year sentence.
At one point during the sentencing Scott’s mother looked the former officer in the eye and told him she forgave him. Families on both sides of the court burst into tears, reported ABC News.
The judge’s decision comes after Slager, who is white, pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights offense.
The shooting occurred on April 4, 2015, while Slager was an officer with the North Charleston Police Department.
Slager claimed self-defense, but witness cellphone video that surfaced shortly after the encounter showed the officer fatally shooting Walter Scott in the back as he ran away. He was fired from the department after the shooting.
As a result, Slager was charged in South Carolina with murder and pleaded not guilty.
During the state murder trial, Michael Slager’s attorney said his client shot Walter Scott because he feared his life was in danger. In 2016, the case ended in a mistrial.
The state retrial and federal trial were expected to take place this year. However, in May Slager pleaded guilty to violating Scott’s civil rights in federal court. Hence, his plea ended the federal case against him and also resolved the state charges that were pending after the mistrial.
Before receiving his sentence in federal court, Slager called each family member by name and apologized. Furthermore, he thanked them for forgiving him. “I wish this never would have happened,” he said. “I wish I could go back to the day and change the events, but I can’t.”
Slager’s father, mother, sister and wife also spoke to the judge, begging for a lighter sentence. They talked about how Slager led a life of service and how upset they were after the shooting. Slager’s wife, Jamie, told the judge, “He had to make a decision in a split second. I couldn’t imagine having to make a decision that fast.”
Although public perception immediately excoriated Slager, and he ultimately pled guilty in federal court, this case was not as clear-cut as it appeared to be. There was more to the story than simply the cellphone video. In 2015 LET published, “Eye of the Storm.” Based upon that article, this is what Slager encountered:
- Traffic stop for an infraction (brake light out).
- Scott presented a driver’s license but no registration or insurance.
- There was a report of a stolen vehicle that was broadcast over the police radio while Officer Slager was talking to Scott at the driver’s door. (Was that a factor?)
- Scott said he was trying to buy the car, but had not yet done so.
- Slager returned to his unit. Whatever investigation he was completing there will contribute to his state of mind.
- Scott began to exit his car, but Slager ordered him to remain seated. (From my perspective, this was a test to analyze his chance of escape. This could have escalated Slager’s awareness.)
- Once Scott fled from the vehicle, a reasonable officer may have considered the car was an unreported stolen based upon the preliminary investigation to that point, but it’s hard to discern by simply watching video.
- Officer Slager chased Scott. About 15 seconds into the foot pursuit Slager is heard shouting “Taser, Taser, Taser.” This is consistent with officer training prior to deploying one. (None of the foot pursuit was captured on video.)
- The chase lasted approximately 100 yards when a female witness saw the two fighting. (Was there a struggle for possession of the Taser?)
- Slager is heard ordering Scott to the ground on at least two occasions.
- After the first scuffle, Scott apparently broke free and the chase continued another 100 yards.
- Slager again ordered Scott to the ground.
- At 4:46 into this encounter, the citizen is able to capture the action on video that eventually went viral.
- Most first impressions involved a white police officer standing upright appearing to execute a fleeing black man.
- Slager broadcast, “… shots fired, subject is down.” “He grabbed my Taser.”
- How Scott grabbed and/or used the Taser is incredibly important as it relates to Slager’s “state of mind” and will probably be the primary factor related to “reasonableness.”
- Expert testimony from a psychologist will likely play a roll. I.e. what was Slager’s mental image when he fired? There are psychological explanations that may conflict with the video. (Note: this was not introduced by defense during trial.)
- If Scott controlled, aimed, or deployed Slager’s Taser on him, this will prove problematic for the prosecution as it dramatically increased the chance of great bodily injury (GBI) to Slager.
- Did Slager tamper with evidence as speculated? If so, that will play a role regarding his credibility. Or, is there another explanation for these alleged actions?
Slager took the stand in his defense in state court. The following statements were attributed to him during the proceedings:
“My family has been destroyed by it. The Scott family has been destroyed by it. It’s horrible.”
“In my mind at that time was, people don’t run for a broken taillight. There’s always another reason,” he testified. “I don’t know why he ran. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Slager described yelling stop and “Taser! Taser! Taser!” as he caught up to Scott.
He said he shot his Taser three times, firing both sets of electric darts before using the emptied weapon near Scott’s skin in a “dry stun.”
Slager said Scott fell to the ground after he fired the second time, and he tried to subdue him, pushing him down with an elbow while holding the Taser in one hand and reaching for his radio to call for backup with the other. That was when Scott grabbed the stun gun, he said.
“He rips it out of my hand,” Slager said, demonstrating the position he said he was in.
“I knew I was in trouble,” Slager testified, adding that Scott “was extending his right arm, leaning forward and coming at me.”
“I was scared” and in “total fear that Mr. Scott didn’t stop” resisting arrest, Slager said.
(This is when the cellphone video begins.)
“At that point I pulled my firearm and pulled the trigger,” he said. “I fired until the threat was stopped as I was trained to do.”
Once the mortally wounded Scott fell to the ground, Slager walked up and handcuffed him.
“I didn’t know if I hit him. I didn’t know if he tripped or fell,” Slager said, adding “you always handcuff a suspect — always.”
After the shooting, the video showed Slager walking back to the spot where they struggled, picking up the Taser, and then returning to drop the stun gun near Scott’s body. Asked by his defense lawyer to explain that, Slager said officers are trained to account for their weapons.
“I must have dropped it by Mr. Scott’s body. I don’t remember doing that,” he said. And when asked if he was trying to plant evidence, Slager said no.
“A lot of this is fuzzy in my mind,” Slager testified at one point.
During cross-examination, prosecutor Bruce DuRant again showed the video and asked Slager if the Taser wasn’t on the ground just before the shots were fired.
“At the time on April 4, I would say no. But after watching the video, I would say yes,” Slager testified. “At the time of the shooting, I didn’t know the Taser was behind me.”
The prosecution has suggested that Scott may have run from the traffic stop because he was afraid of going to jail for being behind on child support.
“Is a warrant a reason to run?” DuRant asked.
“You could say that,” Slager replied.
Asked by defense attorney Andy Savage if he would do again what did in April 2015, Slager replied, “That’s a hard question to answer.”
“I had to make a split-second decision” when Scott grabbed the Taser, Slager said.
But knowing what he knows now, he said he would not have chased Scott on foot in the first place: “Absolutely not. I would have called for backup,” he said.
So although there was a mistrial in state court, Slager was never acquitted. Relocating evidence (Taser) proved damaging. Ultimately he pled guilty in federal court to civil rights violations.
“The defendant used deadly force even though it was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances,” the plea agreement says, according to NBC News. And now he will served a lengthy prison sentence.
At a news conference after the sentencing, Rodney Scott said his family is “pleased.”
“We got justice,” he said.
He said his family is “thankful for the justice system that worked on our behalf.” But added, “a lot of work” still needs to be accomplished to improve the system.
Another one of Walter Scott’s brothers, Anthony Scott, thanked Feiden Santana, the witness who filmed the shooting, for being “brave” enough to film what he saw.
One of Walter Scott’s brothers, Rodney Scott, told the court that the death of his brother was the worst day of his life. Rodney Scott said he wants Slager to pay for his actions.