Cop who killed Walter Scott to plead guilty on civil rights charge, avoid second murder trial

Michael Slager narrowly avoided a guilty verdict in South Carolina his first time out. Now, there won’t be a second.

Fired Officer Michael Slager, right, leaving court in December after a judge declared a mistrial. Slager killed unarmed, fleeing Walter Scott near Charleston in 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mic Smith, File
Fired Officer Michael Slager, right, leaving court in December after a judge declared a mistrial. Slager killed unarmed, fleeing Walter Scott near Charleston in 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mic Smith, File

Former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager will plead guilty Tuesday afternoon to federal charges stemming from his killing of unarmed, fleeing Walter Scott in 2015.

After protesting his innocence for more than a year, Slager’s plea is a major reversal that will likely — though not definitely — ensure he spends some significant time behind bars.

Slager was caught on video shooting Scott multiple times in the back as the older man fled. Family members later said Scott would have feared being brought in over some overdue child support payments. Slager has insisted that Scott tried to take away his taser, and that he killed Scott in self defense because he feared having the less-lethal weapon used against him.

Video of the killing does not support Slager’s claims. But the ex-officer nonetheless won a mistrial last year on a state murder charge.

Slager’s attorney confirmed the plea to the Post & Courier.

“We hope that Michael’s acceptance of responsibility will help the Scott family as they continue to grieve their loss,” attorney Andy Savage said in a statement. The Scott family plans to address the media after Tuesday’s hearing concludes.

Slager’s plea is part of a deal in which state prosecutors will drop the murder charge against him, the Washington Post reports.

The federal charge Slager pleaded out Tuesday comes from a completely different part of the law than that South Carolina murder case.

Federal prosecutors had pursued Slager under the civil rights laws that the Department of Justice can use in such cases. Charges of that sort require prosecutors to clear a high burden of proof: They must show an officer knowingly and willfully deprived someone of their constitutional rights.

It may seem odd that federal prosecutors would charge a cop with a civil rights violation rather than a violent crime when they believe an on-duty killing was criminal rather than justified. But it springs from a longstanding quirk of the law: Federal prosecutors cannot file murder charges against local police who kill on duty with questionable justification unless the incident occurred on federal property.

Nearly all homicide charges against police — which are still extremely rare — are therefore filed under state law and pursued by state and local prosecutors. Even that opportunity to pursue criminal accountability in on-duty shootings can be canceled out, however. Local prosecutors similarly cannot charge federal agents — a form of immunity that some local officers have also tried to invoke by claiming they were acting in cooperation with federal forces during an incident prosecutors believe criminal.

Federal prosecutors chose to pursue a “deprivation of rights under color of law” charge against Slager even though he was also facing felony murder in South Carolina. The plea deal Slager finalized with DOJ prosecutors on Tuesday suggests his team were not confident he could avoid a conviction on retrial in state court.

Attorneys familiar with the case have previously told ThinkProgress they believe the jury in that case was 11–1 in favor of a conviction, but that one determined holdout rescued Slager. Jurors could have found him guilty of murder, which is punishable by 30 years to life in prison under state law, or of voluntary manslaughter, for which sentences range from 2 to 30 years.

By avoiding a retrial for murder, Slager likely saves himself years behind bars.

He could theoretically be sentenced to life in prison on the federal charge, since his alleged violation of Scott’s rights involved killing him. He could also see zero jail time under the immensely flexible sentencing range in the federal law — though Slager’s reversal from fighting the cases to pleading guilty almost certainly means he and prosecutors agreed to some fixed sentencing recommendation to the court.

Slager’s attorneys made the once-unusual choice to put him on the stand in his own murder trial. As prosecutors slowly begin to shift their practices around on-duty police killings, defense strategy is shifting too. Slager’s choice to testify meant risking cross-examination. Officers are increasingly willing to take that risk in order to get their side of the story across — although defense attorneys can also look for end-runs through the media.