The emotional, and often long-winded, sentencing proceedings for former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager ended Thursday, Dec. 7 in a sentence largely expected by experts.
Slager will spend 20 years in federal prison and will be under supervised release for two years after that. U.S. District Judge David Norton also ordered mental counseling and treatment for the 36-year-old father.
On April 4, 2015, Slager stopped 50-year-old Walter Scott for a broken brake light. Scott fled the scene, afraid because he owed child support payments, according to his family. Slager shot Scott in the back five times as he ran away. A bystander caught the shooting on video. Slager pled guilty to the federal charge of violating Scott’s civil rights in May as part of a plea deal that got him off the hook for state murder charges, which were to be re-issued after his 2016 state murder trial ended in a hung jury.
“Judging by the history and characteristics of the defendant, he has lived a spotless life,” Norton said before adding that, “Just punishment is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a zero-sum game.”
On Thursday morning, Norton agreed with federal prosecutors in announcing that Slager had indeed committed second-degree murder in shooting Scott and obstructed justice when lying to SLED officers in the days following the killing (Slager left out details from his meeting with SLED that were later brought up as defenses in the state federal trial).
Slager’s defense team brought in experts in audio and video to try to prove that a ground fight took place between Slager and Scott. Led by noted Charleston attorney Andy Savage, the defense argued that such a fight might have led to Slager fearing for his life and shooting Scott until the threat ceased. Arguments about everything from the conditions in jail, to Slager’s celiac disease, to his vulnerability to harassment were brought up in an effort to lessen the sentence.
Prosecutors, dispatched by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, spent the week driving home their main point: the fact that Scott can clearly be seen on video running away from Slager before, during, and after Slager shot him to death.
“They claimed and continued to claim that the defendant was acting under self defense,” said prosecutor Jared Fishman. “Now they are taking position that this was the heat of passion. The defense wants to get a reduced sentence while continuing to claim that this was all Scott’s fault.”
The sentencing was preceded by emotional testimony from members of both the Scott and the Slager family.
“It was so surreal that this happened that morning,” said Walter Scott’s mom, Judy, while holding back tears. “I said you know how the North Charleston police does, seemed like they just picked at you for any reason.”
She said she forgave Michael Slager.
“I pray for you that you will repent and let Jesus come in your life because God loves us all,” she added.
Outside of the courthouse, Walter Scott’s older brother, Anthony, said that it took him the longest out of anyone in the family to forgive Michael Slager.
“We feel like we have gotten justice today, we feel that we have moved on,” Scott said. “At the end of the day, God had a ram in the bush, and his name was [Feidin] Santana, who was brave enough to film this horrendous act that was done to my brother.”
Activist and pastor Thomas Dixon says North Charleston has not taken enough responsibility for the shooting. The city settled with the Scott family for $6.5 million in October 2015.
“I’m happy where we’re at right now,” Dixon said regarding Slager’s sentencing. “I’m disappointed in the state and I’m disappointed in the city of North Charleston. After they terminated [Slager], the only comments we would get were, ‘Well, it’s in SLED’s hands.’
“A pretext stop is really what led to this whole murder,” Dixon continued. “$1.57 is what led to his brother’s death. I hope those eight shots heard around the world … I pray that this will be a serious learning position for North Charleston and for our policing in South Carolina period.”
Dixon, a former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, is one of the many voices in the African-American community calling for a release of Department of Justice findings from a review of the North Charleston Police Department conducted after the Scott shooting. The department, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, ended reviews of local law enforcement agencies in September.
“I think it must be something else to why they would not release that,” Anthony Scott said while walking back to his hotel after the sentencing. “If there’s nothing to hide, there is no reason to hide anything.”
The Department of Justice issued a press release immediately after the Dec. 7 sentence was handed down. Sessions offered his condolences to the Scott family and stood by his prosecutors’ work.
“Law enforcement officers have the noble calling to serve and protect,” Sessions said. “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. Those who enforce our laws must also abide by them — and this Department of Justice will hold accountable anyone who violates the civil rights of our fellow Americans. On behalf of the Department of Justice, I want to offer my condolences to the Scott family and loved ones.”