A federal judge Thursday sentenced a white former North Charleston police officer to 20 years in prison for the 2015 killing of an unarmed African American man who was running away from the officer when he was shot and killed.
The sentence came after the mother of the slain Walter Scott addressed his killer, Michael Slager, while clutching a portrait of her smiling son. “I forgive Michael Slager. I forgive you. Forgiveness is in my heart. And I pray for you that you will repent and let Jesus come into your life.”
U.S. District Court Judge David Norton sentenced Slager, 46, on the fourth day of an hearing unusual for its length — more than two dozen witnesses testified or spoke over four days.
Norton characterized Slager’s on-duty killing of Scott, 50, as a second-degree murder, not the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter that Slager’s lawyers had sought. The sentence followed Slager’s guilty plea to a federal charge of violating Scott’s civil rights by abusing his power as a police officer.
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It is the most severe sentence ever given to a white S.C. police officer for the wrongful killing of a black person, civil rights activists said afterward. Slager is not eligible for parole, meaning he will serve the entire 240-month sentence.
“A police officer has been brought to justice in Charleston, South Carolina, hallelujah”,” said the Rev. Nelson Rivers III of Charleston. “This is a shocking but good day.”
After the sentencing, Scott’s older brother, Anthony Scott told reporters, “Not only did we get justice today, but the truth was told.”
Slager’s April 4, 2015, shooting of Scott captured the nation’s attention after a bystander’s cell phone video of the incident surfaced several days later. It captured Slager taking aim at the fleeing Scott and firing eight times. Slager’s initial version of events — that he only killed Scott because Scott was fighting with him and took his Taser — had been publicized widely and believed until the video surfaced.
Slager’s defense lawyers, Andy Savage and Don McCune, tried to get Norton to characterize the killing as voluntary manslaughter, seeking a sentence in the 12- to 13-year range.
But Norton accepted prosecutors’ arguments that Slager had obstructed justice, by giving false statements to police about the killing, and also moved evidence at the scene, making it look like Scott had taken his Taser. Norton said he determined Slager had no reason to use deadly force against Scott.
“Sentencing is the worst part of the best job in the world,” Norton said before announcing Slager’s sentence. “Today, no matter what sentence I give, neither the Scott family nor the Slager family will think it is right.”
Federal prosecutor Jared Fishman had asked for a severe sentence. “The government asks for a sentence that says that no one is above the law.”
Thursday’s hearing was marked by tearful statements by members of both the Scott and Slager families.
▪ Anthony Scott told Norton that he knew from the start his brother never would have fought with a police officer. As a boy, the brothers had played “cowboys and Indians,” he said, adding the good guys never shot someone in the back or while they were running away.
▪ Another brother, Rodney Scott Sr., held up a small light bulb, saying that it cost $1.15 and recalled Slager had stopped his brother for a broken brake light, then shot him to death. “Why did he do that? He didn’t have to do that.”
▪ Slager’s wife, Jamie, tearfully told the judge, “I miss him so much, and I will be waiting for him to come home. … I feel the immense loss for both families.” Turning and speaking to the Scott family, she said: “I think about you every day, and I always will. … My heart breaks, knowing that things cannot be changed.” She and Slager have two young daughters and a 2-year-old son.
▪ Slager himself spoke briefly, wiping away tears and, at one point, turning to address many of the Scott family members by name. “I’m standing here to take responsibility,” he said. “I wish I could go back in time to change the situation, but I can’t.”
Slager’s lawyers indicated they may appeal the sentence.
For the moment, however, Slager’s sentencing closes a chapter in one of the most notorious crimes in modern S.C. history, a case that attracted worldwide attention after the video of the shooting went viral on the Internet.
The daylight shooting, on April 4, 2015, occurred at a time of rising national consciousness of white officers being involved in high-profile fatal shootings of African-American suspects. Some shootings were justified; some were not.
In South Carolina, Scott’s slaying has resulted in increased training for law enforcement officers and increased use of body cameras by police.
The video — taken by Feidin Santana, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who was passing by the vacant lot where the shooting took place — showed Slager firing at Scott. After studying the video, FBI experts testified the first shot was fired when Scott was 15 feet away from Slager. The final shot was fired when he was 45 feet away.
Slager’s attorneys introduced more than than a half-dozen experts. Those experts said their reconstructions of the crime showed Scott had resisted arrest and posed a threat to Slager just before the shooting. But Judge Norton rejected those claims.
The federal crime for which Slager was sentenced is “deprivation of rights under color of law,” which means basically that an officer has abused his authority by violating someone’s rights. In this case, the abuse was the killing of Scott.
Slager pleaded guilty to the charge earlier this year. In return, state charges of murder against him were dropped. In late 2016, when Slager was tried on state murder charges, a jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.
At a press conference after the sentencing, Scott’s family and their lawyers said they were grateful that some good came out the slaying.
“The death of Walter Scott, with all the great reforms that have happened, can make the next officer think one second longer,” said family lawyer Chris Stuart.