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

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. (Mic Smith/AP)
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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 charges after 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.

‘Look for justice’: A shooting in South Carolina and the power of video

Under the terms of the plea agreement announced in May, Slager pleaded guilty to one count of violating Scott’s rights under color of law, and prosecutors said they would push for a judge to apply sentencing guidelines for second-degree murder and obstruction of justice. Slager could have faced a life sentence, but prosecutors had said as part of the plea deal that they would recommend that his sentence be reduced due to his “acceptance of responsibility,” as long as he did not later seek to minimize that acceptance.

In a sentencing memorandum filed last month, prosecutors argued that Slager did not appear to be taking full responsibility and that, as a result, they did not feel he should receive a sentence less severe than life imprisonment.

Attorneys for Slager argued against that in their own filing, writing that the former officer accepted responsibility and “has said nothing that contradicts the factual basis for the offense contained in the plea agreement.” They argued that federal prosecutors were focused only on “their unreasonable goal to have Slager spend the remainder of his life in prison.”

Slager’s attorney did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment about the sentencing.

Scott’s mother had expressed forgiveness for Slager before, and she reiterated that sentiment Thursday, saying that she is praying for him. After the sentence was announced, Scott’s relatives said that they believed they had gotten justice and that “the truth was told.”

The family of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, who was fatally shot by a white South Carolina police officer, said they've finally received justice. (Video: Reuters)

Scott’s death in April 2015 became among the most high-profile police shootings in recent years due to the video recording that later emerged. This recording showed the 50-year-old Scott hurrying away as the officer fired at him from behind. Scott was struck five times, officials said.

The video quickly ricocheted around the Internet and on news stations, and Slager was arrested and fired from his police force.

Slager said he feared for his life at the time of the shooting. In another video recording, this one taken by Slager’s dashboard camera as the traffic stop got underway, the two men could be seen interacting before Scott got out of his car and fled. Slager is then heard on a police radio reporting a description of Scott before yelling, “Taser, Taser, Taser!”

During the trial, Slager testified that he was scared and felt “total fear that Mr. Scott was coming toward me.” The former officer also said that he tried to subdue Scott and that the driver had grabbed his Taser during a struggle.

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 Scott 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.

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. (Video: Reuters)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday pledged that the 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.

This report, first published at 12:28 p.m., has been updated.

Further reading:

The Washington Post’s 2017 police shootings database

‘I was scared’: S.C. officer on trial for murder in shooting of unarmed black man takes the stand

Former S.C. police officer pleads guilty in fatal shooting caught on video