The white South Carolina police officer charged with murder for shooting an apparently unarmed black man in the back will likely not face the death penalty, according to the prosecutor.
When Michael Slager was arrested and charged with murder a week ago, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the agency investigating the shooting, noted that this charge carried with it a potential death sentence. However, the prosecutor who could pursue the case said she does not think she would seek such a sentence.
“Based on the facts revealed thus far, it does not appear South Carolina’s death penalty provision applies in this case because there are no statutory ‘aggravating circumstances’ present,” Scarlett A. Wilson said in a statement Monday.
South Carolina’s state code states that the death penalty can only be imposed in certain instances, including when a murder is carried out during a burglary or when the person who is killed is a child or law enforcement officer.
If a person is convicted of murder and not sentenced to death, the mandatory minimum sentence is 30 years to life in prison without possibility of parole or early release.
Slager, 33, was charged on Tuesday after a bystander’s video emerged showing the officer firing multiple shots into the back of Walter Scott, 50, as the older man ran away after a traffic stop. The North Charleston (S.C.) Police Department fired Slager, decried the actions seen in the video and vowed to outfit all of its officers with body cameras.
Still, police officers who shoot and kill people rarely face criminal charges, as the law allows them considerable leeway when deciding how to use lethal force if they think lives are at risk.
An analysis conducted by The Washington Post and researchers at Bowling Green Sate University found that while thousands of officers shot and killed someone over the last decade, a small fraction of them — 55 officers as of this week — faced criminal charges. (That number includes a Tulsa reserve deputy charged with manslaughter this week after he shot and killed an unarmed man.) Most of the officers who were charged and had their cases resolved were acquitted or had the charges dropped; the officers who are convicted or plead guilty average four years behind bars, while some serve just a number of weeks.
In South Carolina, Wilson cautioned that it will take some time for this case to wind its way through the legal system. While she said her office has been briefed on the investigation being conducted by state investigators, she also said she has not received the overall file on the investigation. In addition, Wilson said it could be weeks before she receives it.
It will also take time before a grand jury considers whether to indict Slager, who remains in a Charleston County jail. The grand jury in Charleston will not meet until May, Wilson said. And once her office receives the files on the state investigation, it will still take time for her office to review it.
An attorney for Slager had issued a statement last week criticizing law enforcement agencies for not providing him with the files he sought on the investigation.
“Unfortunately, despite having made requests, he has not received the cooperation from law enforcement that the media has, and he has yet to receive any investigative documents, audio or video tapes, other than a copy of Mr. Slager’s arrest warrant,” Andrew J. Savage III, a Charleston defense lawyer, said in a statement Friday.
Savage said that he “has tremendous respect for and an excellent working relationship with” Wilson, adding that he believes once Wilson’s office gets these documents, he will also receive them.
This week, the passenger who was in Scott’s car during the traffic stop said he missed his “dear friend” and asked for privacy.
“I’ll never know why he ran, but I know he didn’t deserve to die,” Pierre Fulton said in a statement his attorney sent to The Post.