The white police officer who gunned down a black man in broad daylight two years ago as he fled on foot in Charleston, S.C., was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
U.S. District Judge David Norton ruled that Michael Slager, 36, committed second-degree murder and obstruction of justice, in addition to a federal civil rights charge, and set sentencing guidelines of 19 to 24 years in prison.
Norton said that Slager took Scott’s life “out of malice,” according to reporters in the courtroom. “No matter what sentence I give, neither the Scott family nor the Slager family is going to like it or think it’s right,” Norton said.
In May, Slager pleaded guilty to Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law, a federal civil rights charge, in exchange for dropping the two other federal charges and the original state murder charges he was facing. His state trial ended in a mistrial last December because jurors couldn’t agree on whether Slager had committed a crime.
The civil rights charge carries a potential sentence of anywhere from no time in jail to life.
It was one of the most infamous officer-involved killings to be caught on camera in recent years, and made an indelible mark on a country already grappling with issues of race and policing.
It all started with a routine traffic stop over a non-functioning taillight. Dashcam footage showed Slager stopping Scott’s vehicle, speaking with him, and then returning to his patrol car. After their interaction, Scott, who owed thousands of dollars in child support payments and had a bench warrant out for his arrest, jumped out of his car and fled on foot, with Slager chasing him.
The pursuit was caught in shaky mobile phone video taken by a barber who was on his way home from work. You see what appears to be a brief altercation and physical tussle between the two men, before 50-year-old Scott breaks free and runs away on foot. Then Slager points his weapon at Scott and fires eight shots, five of which struck Scott.
Scott falls to the ground. Slager appears to radio for backup, approaches Scott’s body, and dispassionately places handcuffs on him.
During the trial, which began Monday, both sides tussled over what exactly happened in the minutes, and even seconds, that led to Slager’s decision to pull the trigger. Ironing out that narrative would be crucial in the district court judge’s determination of how egregious Slager’s actions were — and how much time he deserved to do.
Federal prosecutors contended that an underlying charge of voluntary manslaughter would be most appropriate. Voluntary manslaughter would have made life imprisonment more likely.
The sentence came down after three days of testimony — emotional at times — including from Feiden Santana, the bystander who filmed the shooting, and Judy Scott, Walter Scott’s mother.
After Norton set the sentencing guideline, Judy Scott, Walter Scott’s mother, tearfully turned to Slager and offered forgiveness, Post and Courier reporter Andrew Knapp reported from the District court house. “God loves us all no matter what we’ve done,” Judy Scott said to Slager.
Slager, in response, reportedly nodded his head and mouthed, “I’m sorry.”