Michael Slager, Officer in Fatal Shooting of Walter Scott, Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison

Michael Slager, the former North Charleston police officer, at the Charleston County Courthouse in December 2016.
Randall Hill/Reuters

Michael T. Slager, the white police officer whose video-recorded killing of an unarmed black motorist in North Charleston, S.C., starkly illustrated the turmoil over racial bias in American policing, was sentenced on Thursday to 20 years in prison, after the judge in the case said he viewed the shooting as a murder.

The sentence, which was within the range of federal guidelines, was pronounced in Federal District Court in Charleston about seven months after Mr. Slager pleaded guilty to violating the civil rights of Walter L. Scott when he shot and killed him in April 2015. The case against Mr. Slager is one of the few instances in which a police officer has been prosecuted for an on-duty shooting.

“We have to get this type of justice, because being a police officer is one of the most powerful jobs in the country, and it should be respected,” L. Chris Stewart, a lawyer for Mr. Scott’s family, said after the hearing, which was punctuated by tears and grief. “But that doesn’t mean you’re above the law. That doesn’t mean you can do as you please.”

Federal prosecutors had urged that Mr. Slager be sentenced to life in prison for a shooting that they contended amounted to second-degree murder. Mr. Slager’s defense lawyers, as well as the United States Probation Office, had recommended that the judge, David C. Norton, treat the shooting as akin to voluntary manslaughter.

On Thursday, the fourth day of the sentencing proceedings, Judge Norton said he had concluded that the killing should be considered murder for the purposes of determining Mr. Slager’s punishment. The shooting, he said, was “reckless, wanton and inappropriate.”

Judy Scott holds a photo of her son Walter Scott on Thursday after Michael Slager, a former police officer who shot and killed Mr. Scott in 2015 after a traffic stop, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for violating Mr. Scott’s civil rights.
Randall Hill/Reuters

Although the judge’s sentence fell short of what prosecutors had sought, the fact that Mr. Slager was convicted of any crime at all made the case a milestone in the national debate about police conduct. Other killings by police officers, from Baltimore to Charlotte, N.C., and Ferguson, Mo., have prompted protests and some changes in police practice, but have not led to convictions.

“Officers who violate anyone’s rights also violate their oaths of honor, and they tarnish the names of the vast majority of officers, who do incredible work,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He added that the Justice Department would “hold accountable anyone who violates the civil rights of our fellow Americans.”

In court on Thursday, Mr. Slager expressed remorse.

“Walter Scott is no longer with his family, and I’m responsible for that,” he said. “I wish it never would have happened. I wish I could go back in time.” After the hearing, his lawyers declined to comment.

Mr. Slager, who has been jailed in Charleston County since he entered his guilty plea in early May, was a patrolman in North Charleston, the third-largest city in South Carolina, when he stopped Mr. Scott for a broken taillight in 2015. The traffic stop, on the Saturday before Easter, was mostly unremarkable until Mr. Scott got out of his car and began to run. Mr. Scott’s family believes that he fled because he feared being arrested over unpaid child support.

Mr. Slager gave chase and caught up with Mr. Scott, and according to the officer’s later testimony, the two men struggled over the officer’s Taser device. Mr. Slager said that he was in “total fear” because of the possibility that Mr. Scott might seize the Taser and use it against him.

“I see him with a Taser in his hand as I see him spinning around,” Mr. Slager, who was 33 at the time of the shooting, testified later about the skirmish with Mr. Scott, who was 50. “That’s the only thing I see: that Taser in his hand.”

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SOURCE: NY Times, Alan Blinder