A white police officer who was filmed shooting an unarmed black motorist has been handed a 20 year prison sentence. Michael Slager’s case is a rare conviction in numerous prosecutions of police officers who have shot and killed unarmed African-Americans.
The officer, who was fired after the shooting, “acted out of malice aforethought, shooting dead an unarmed and fleeing Walter Scott,” Judge David Norton said Thursday. “Slager's actions were disproportional to Scott’s misconduct.”
Slager, now 36, was a North Charleston Police Department officer when he pulled over Scott, 50, over a broken brake light on April 4, 2015. Scott had an outstanding warrant for missing child support payments. The two scuffled on the ground before Scott managed to get away. Slager then fired eight shots, with five of hitting Scott in the back from 17 feet away, killing him.
Slager told investigators that Scott took his stun gun and that he opened fire to prevent him from using it. However, cell phone video recorded by bystander Feiden Santana showed Scott turning around to run away as the stun gun landed on the ground behind the officer. Slager could be seen pulling out his handgun and opening fire. The video also shows Slager dropping an object next to Scott’s body after the shooting, which prosecutors argued was proof that Slager planted evidence on Scott. The video went viral and prompted a national outcry, leading to the NCPD firing Slager.
Slaged pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights offense. Norton decided the former officer committed second-degree murder and obstructed justice, and sentenced him to 19-24 years. Norton said further that Slager intentionally gave false testimony to authorities.
"This is the most serious offense that we have," Norton said before announcing the sentence. "Judging by the history and characteristics of the defendant, he has lived a spotless life. Regardless, this is a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened."
Scott’s son Miles urged Norton to impose the "strongest sentence" on Slager.
"Your honor, I miss my dad so much I can't sleep at night," he said. "As I get older my dad will never see me or his future grand kids. I never thought I would lose him at a young age and I still can't believe he is gone."
Separately, Slager faced murder charges in South Carolina and has pleaded not guilty. That case ended in a mistrial, however. The state retrial and federal trial were slated to take placed this year, but Slager pleaded guilty to violating Scott’s civil rights in federal court. His plea ended the federal case and resolved the outstanding state charges resulting from the mistrial.
Several high-profile cases of police officers killing unarmed black people have resulted in non-convictions. Officers involved in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland were cleared of charges in November. In 2015, a grand jury declined to indict a Cleveland, Ohio officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. In 2014, a grand jury voted to not indict a NYPD police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner.