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Former South Carolina police officer who shot Walter Scott sentenced to 20 years

Thursday, December 7, 2017 15:27
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Former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager leaves the Charleston County Courthouse last year after a mistrial was declared in the state murder case against him. 

The former South Carolina police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, following a traffic stop was sentenced Thursday to 20 years behind bars in a federal case stemming from the fatal encounter.

Michael Slager, who had been an officer with the North Charleston police, was charged with murder in state court and indicted on federal civil rights chargesafter the shooting in 2015. In graphic video footage of the shooting recorded by a bystander, Scott could be seen running from Slager as the officer fired a barrage of bullets into his back.

Slager’s murder trial ended with a deadlocked jury last year, and prosecutors had vowed to retry him in state court. But earlier this year, the 36-year-old former officer, who had said he feared for his life when he shot Scott, pleaded guilty to a single federal civil rights charge as part of a plea deal that resolved both cases.

Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison after U.S. District Judge David C. Norton determined that the former officer’s shooting of Scott constituted second-degree murder and that his actions after constituted obstruction of justice, according to the Justice Department.

When asked by a prosecutor whether he agreed that Scott was unarmed and running away, Slager testified that he did not realize the Taser had fallen behind him when he fired the fatal shots. Slager said that at the time, he did not think Slager was unarmed, but he realized it after watching the video. The bystander video also shows Slager placing an item — his Taser — near Scott’s body following the shooting.


Former South Carolina officer Michael Slager defends shooting unarmed black man Walter Scott

A white former South Carolina policeman takes the stand at his murder trial to defend his decision to shoot and kill an unarmed black man last year. (Reuters)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday pledged that his Justice Department would “hold accountable anyone who violates the civil rights” of Americans.

“Law enforcement officers have the noble calling to serve and protect,” Sessions said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “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.”

Officers are rarely charged for deadly on-duty shootings, though that number has increased in recent years amid intense scrutiny and protests that have broken out across the country. Experts attribute the increase in prosecutions to a combination of more video evidence and mounting political pressure.

[ ‘Forgiveness is in my heart,’ a bereaved mother told the officer who shot her son in the back ]

Convictions in such cases remain rare. During a single week last June, three police officers who had been charged over high-profile shootings captured on video were not convicted; two were acquitted, and a mistrial was declared in a third case.

The law firm of Andrew J. Savage III, an attorney for Slager, had called the federal charges against Slager “very extreme” when they were announced and suggested they were motivated by “the burden of many past cases that were handled differently.”

While the videos that go viral can be gruesome, experts caution that such footage may be incomplete and note that the legal standard still remains whether an officer’s actions were “objectively reasonable” at the time.

David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on police use of force, said this standard tends to favor police. In an interview earlier this year, Harris said jurors also tend to give officers “the benefit of the doubt” in most cases.

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