Former South Carolina officer Michael Slager to be sentenced in killing of unarmed black man
The Scott family found strength in prayer as they sat through court testimony from the former South Carolina officer who killed Walter Scott two years ago.
And they will trust in God again to steady them on Monday. That’s when a federal judge will sentence Michael Slager, the white former North Charleston officer who shot Scott, a 50-year-old unarmed black man, in the back as he ran after a traffic stop on April 4, 2015.
“We’re praying that he will get a just sentence,” Scott’s brother, Anthony, 55, said last week. “If he gets zero time, God has it under control.”
In May, Slager pleaded guilty to deprivation of rights under color of law after a murder trial ended in a mistrial. He admitted he didn’t shoot Scott in self defense and said he used excessive force.
Federal prosecutors are seeking a life sentence. Prosecutors believe Slager committed second-degree murder and should also be punished for obstructing justice.
Prosecutors said Slager repeatedly lied to authorities and in court, including not initially telling authorities he shot Slager in the back while he was running away. Slager also tampered with the crime scene by moving his Taser, prosecutors said, planting it on the ground next to Scott’s body.
But Slager’s attorneys said the offense amounts to voluntary manslaughter. They argued Slager never lied, but the traumatic situation affected his recollection.
“A Swiss cheese memory is a symptom of stress, not an indication of lying,” his attorneys wrote in court papers, citing expert testimony.
A traffic stop
Slager first pulled Scott over for a broken tail light. Moments later, Scott ran away.
A foot chase followed. Slager’s first attempt to use his Taser did not stop Scott. A second deployment brought Scott to the ground, but he got up and took off again. Slager fired as Scott ran away for the final time.
A bystander’s cell phone video captured Slager firing eight times — striking Scott five times in the back.
The cellphone video that Feidin Santana recorded led to Slager’s firing and arrest on a murder charge. Scott’s death renewed “Black Lives Matter” protests after the father of four became the latest in the series of armed black men killed by police.
Santana said he saw Slager in the foot chase with Scott. He followed the two men into a lot where he saw part of the incident before he began recording. Only the tail end of the altercation was caught on camera.
Santana described a struggle in which the officer was always on top, and Scott was trying to get away. He said they got up quickly.
Santana said “he (shot) the man running.”
Slager: ‘I knew I was in trouble’
On the stand during his murder trial, an emotional Slager testified his mind was like “spaghetti” during the altercation with Scott that day.
He argued that even at 18 feet away, Scott still posed a threat to him and could have turned around and charged him. Prosecutors contended there was little physical evidence of a struggle.
“Scott would never stop after I gave him multiple commands to stop,” Slager said in November.
Slager testified he and Scott scuffled before the shooting, and said that Scott was much stronger.
He couldn’t recall all the details, but he remembered Scott wrestling away his Taser and briefly pointing it at him, Slager said.
“I knew I was in trouble,” Slager said. “I was in total fear Mr. Scott didn’t stop, continued to come towards me.”
Slager’s murder trial ended in a mistrial after the jury failed to reach a verdict last December.
Defense: ‘A Swiss cheese memory’
In exchange for a plea deal in May, state murder charges as well as other federal charges were dropped. The plea agreement didn’t contain Slager’s initial claim that he feared for his life because Scott grabbed his Taser.
The plea deal marked one of the first resolutions of a high-profile police shooting under then-new Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions has ordered a review of the police reform activities of the previous administration — many of which began in response to police-involved shootings.
Slager’s attorneys drew parallels between Slager’s recollection of the shooting and Sessions’ testimony at a House judiciary committee meeting last month.
Sessions had previously said he had “no recollection” of a March 2016 meeting at Trump Hotel that he attended along with Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos. But a picture of the meeting that surfaced after the staffer pleaded guilty for false statements jogged his memory, Sessions said.
Sessions testified in November that he now recalls the meeting, rejecting claims he lied about the Trump campaign and Russia.
Papadopoulos’s work is now a focus of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling.
“My answers have not changed,” Sessions testified then. “I have always told the truth, and I have answered every question as I understood them and to the best of my recollection.”
In court papers, Slager’s attorneys said, “Like Sessions, Slager never lied or misled anyone. Like Sessions, he answered the questions that were asked,” Slager’s attorneys wrote.
“When he failed to remember certain items, it can be attributed to stress or the chaos of the event during which the memory should have been formed,” they wrote.
Slager’s defense attorneys, Andy Savage and Donald L. McCune Jr., of Charleston, South Carolina, couldn’t be reached on Sunday.
Scott family: ‘God has the final say so’
Anthony Scott plans to address the court on Monday, along with other family members.
Scott said he shared stories about his relationship with his younger brother in his victim impact statement that was given to the judge. He said the younger Scott was “my first best friend” and a Dallas Cowboys fan who could easily recount childhood memories.
“He could go back and tell you what happened on such and such date,” the elder Scott said.
Anthony Scott said his family will “not be satisfied with anything less than 20 years.” But he and his family are prepared for whatever the sentence will be.
“God has the final say so,” he said. “We’re not going to leave with our heads down no matter what happens.”