By Mark Berman
The former South Carolina police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, following a traffic stop was sentenced Thursday to 20 years behind bars in a federal case stemming from the shooting.
Michael Slager, who had been an officer with the North Charleston police, was charged with murder in state court and indicted on federal civil rights charges after the shooting in 2015. His murder trial ended with a deadlocked jury last year, and prosecutors had vowed to retry Slager in state court.
But earlier this year, Slager pleaded guilty to a single federal civil rights charge as part of a plea deal that resolved both cases. A judge sentenced him to 20 years in prison, according to The Associated Press, which had a reporter at the sentencing.
Under the terms of the plea agreement announced in May, Slager pleaded guilty to one count of violating Scott’s rights under color of law, and prosecutors said they would push for a judge to apply sentencing guidelines for second-degree murder and obstruction of justice. Slager could have faced a life sentence, but prosecutors also said as part of the plea deal that they would recommend that his sentence be reduced due to his “acceptance of responsibility.”
Scott’s death in April 2015 became among the most high-profile police shootings in recent years due to graphic video that later emerged. In the recording, which was captured by a bystander, the 50-year-old Scott was seen hurrying away as the officer fired a volley of rounds at the driver’s back.
The video quickly ricocheted around the internet and on news stations, and Slager was arrested and fired from his police force.
Slager said he feared for his life during the encounter. In another video recording, this one taken by Slager’s dashboard camera as the traffic stop got underway, the two men could be seen interacting before Scott got out of his car and fled. Slager is then heard on a police radio reporting a description of Scott before yelling, “Taser, Taser, Taser!”
During the trial, Slager testified that he was scared and felt “total fear that Mr. Scott was coming toward me.” The former officer also said that he tried to subdue Scott and that the driver had grabbed his Taser during a struggle.
When asked by a prosecutor whether he agreed that Scott was unarmed and running away, Slager testified that he did not realize the Taser had fallen behind him when he fired the fatal shots.
Slager said that at the time, he did not think Slager was unarmed, but he realized it after watching the video. The bystander video also shows Slager placing an item - his Taser - near Scott’s body following the shooting.
Officers are rarely charged for deadly on-duty shootings, though that number has increased in recent years amid intense scrutiny and protests that have broken out across the country. Experts attribute the increase in prosecutions to a combination of more video evidence and mounting political pressure.
Convictions in such cases remain rare. During a single week last June, three police officers who had been charged over high-profile shootings captured on video were not convicted; two were acquitted, and a mistrial was declared in a third case.
The law firm of Andrew Savage, an attorney for Slager, had called the federal charges against Slager “very extreme” when they were announced and suggested they were motivated by “the burden of many past cases that were handled differently.”
While the videos that go viral can be gruesome, experts caution that such footage may be incomplete and note that the legal standard still remains whether an officer’s actions were “objectively reasonable” at the time.
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on police use of force, said this standard tends to favor police. In an interview earlier this year, Harris said jurors also tend to give officers “the benefit of the doubt” in most cases.