Michael Slager, the white former police officer who gunned down Walter Scott, an unarmed black man running away from Slager, was sentenced to 20 years in prison today after he pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges. Slager had been charged with murder by the state of South Carolina, and a judge ultimately ruled that he committed second-degree murder and obstruction of justice.
Slager had claimed Scott wrestled his stun gun away from him, and that he was forced to use his firearm in self defense. But video of the incident showed otherwise.
Although the North Charleston Police Department initially backed Slager's self-defense claim, cell phone video taken by a bystander showed Scott running away from the officer. Slager then drew his gun and fired eight shots, hitting Scott, who at that point was about 15 to 20 feet away, in the back.
The law limits the use deadly force against a fleeing suspect to those instances where a police officer has probable cause to believe the suspect "poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others." Slager was charged and indicted on state murder charges, but his first trial resulted in a hung jury. Instead of facing another murder trial, Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights violation for using excessive force.
In accepting his guilty plea plea, U.S. District Judge David Norton told the court, "Slager's actions were disproportional to Scott's misconduct." Norton was asked to choose between two options for the underlying offense: prosecutors asked for a finding of second-degree murder, which could mean life in prison, while Slager's defense attorneys contended the shooting was voluntary manslaughter. In the end, Norton ruled Slager "acted out of malice and forethought, shooting dead an unarmed and fleeing Walter Scott."
Sentencing guidelines mean Slager will serve between 19 and 24 years behind bars. "No matter what sentence I give," Norton noted, "neither the Scott family nor the Slager family is going to like it or think it's right."