Crime & Courts

Ex-SC police officer pleads guilty in federal court in Walter Scott shooting death

A white former North Charleston police officer, whose 2015 execution-style slaying of a fleeing, unarmed black man was videoed by a bystander and viewed by millions, on Tuesday pleaded guilty to federal civil rights violations.

The guilty plea by Michael Slager, 35, in the shooting death of Walter Scott, 50, came as a result of lengthy behind-the-scenes plea negotiations between state and federal prosecutors and Slager’s lawyers.

In a 12-page plea deal, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson – who was at Tuesday’s hearing – agreed to drop pending state murder charges against Slager in exchange for the federal guilty plea.

Following the hearing at the Charleston federal courthouse, Slager was taken into custody. A sentencing hearing before U.S. Judge David Norton will take place later, after a federal probation office investigation.

Under the civil rights law to which Slager pleaded guilty, the ex-officer could be sentenced to as much as life in prison and a $250,000 fine for “using deadly force even though it was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances,” according to a Department of Justice press release.

However, defendants who plead guilty and accept responsibility, as Slager did Tuesday, usually avoid a maximum sentence.

The section of federal civil rights law Slager was charged with violating is aimed specifically at law officers who abuse their positions to unlawfully injure or kill others.

A statement released by Slager’s lawyers hours before the hearing said, “We hope that Michael’s acceptance of responsibility will help the Scott family as they continue to grieve their loss.”

Slager, who was fired after a viral video emerged days after the April 4, 2015, shooting, was slated to go on trial in federal court in Charleston on May 15 for federal charges of civil rights violations and obstruction of justice.

Slager’s shooting of Scott, 50, happened when Scott was some 10-15 yards away and fleeing. The incident was caught on a cell phone video by a passer-by and, within days, played repeatedly on national television news shows and state media Internet sites.

Slager said he stopped Scott’s car after observing a rear brake light was not working. During the stop, Scott jumped out of his car and fled. Slager chased him on foot for 200 yards, deploying his Taser probes twice. After the second Taser deployment, Scott fell, got up and fled again, according to the plea agreement.

“As Scott was running away (the second time), Slager fired eight shots at him from his department-issued firearm,” the plea agreement said. “Five shots hit Scott, all entering from behind. Scott suffered bodily injury and died on the scene.”

Since Scott was obviously running away, it was perhaps the most shocking of all police shooting videos shown on television in the past few years. The video showed Slager bracing his .45 caliber Glock pistol with two hands and repeatedly shooting squarely at Scott’s back.

The blatant nature of the video helped spark a national conversation about the use of deadly force and the shooting of black suspects by white officers. It also heightened the awareness of the importance of bystander video and police body cameras – Scott was not wearing one – as a tool that could help sort out what happens in fast-paced shooting events.

Six months after the shooting, without a lawsuit being filed, the city of North Charleston reached a $6.5 million settlement with Scott’s family.

However, a five-week trial in December in state court in Charleston on murder charges resulted in a mistrial due to a hung jury.

In the federal case, Slager faced three charges: a civil rights violation for taking Scott’s life without legal justification, using a weapon during a crime of violence and obstruction of justice.

A May 2016 indictment also alleges obstruction of justice, charging that Slager “knowingly misled State Law Enforcement Division investigators by falsely stating that he (Slager) fired his weapon at Scott while Scott was coming forward at him with a Taser.”

The indictment continued, “In fact, as defendant Michael Slager then well knew, he (Slager) repeatedly fired his weapon at Scott when Scott was running away from him.”

Slager made his statements before he knew of the bystander’s video.

During the state trial, Slager had claimed self defense.

Beth Drake, U.S. attorney for South Carolina, praised Scott’s family. “They have persevered in their quest for justice for their loved one, and I hope that today brings them a measure of closure.”

State Solicitor Wilson, who will get a chance to speak at Slager’s sentencing hearing, issued a statement Tuesday after the guilty plea. It said in part:

“My role is to hold criminals accountable, regardless of their profession. ... The civil rights aspect of the killing of Walter Scott has always been important to the Scott family, to our community and to our nation.

“Today, in working with the Department, we found justice in a resolution that vindicates the State’s interests by holding former police officer Michael Slager accountable for shooting Mr. Scott (in the back) when Slager knew it was wrong and illegal; as well as justice in a resolution that recognizes the egregious violation of Mr. Scott’s civil rights.”

Although the plea agreement did not mention race, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions underscored the national import of the case by saying his Department of Justice “will hold accountable any law enforcement officer who violates the civil rights of our citizens by using excessive force.”

Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who represented Feidin Santana, the bystander who shot the video, said his client is no doubt satisfied. “All he ever wanted was justice, and it looks like we are on that path. Now, the world is waiting to see what the sentence will be.”