Former South Carolina cop Michael Slager should go to prison for the rest of his life for killing Walter Scott, federal prosecutors have told the judge who will decide Slager’s sentence in early December.
The federal case against Slager is separate from his homicide case in South Carolina courts, where a jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict nearly a year ago. Slager’s retrial in state court was set to begin in August but was pre-empted when Slager pleaded guilty to the separate civil rights charge in federal court.
Slager killed Scott as the latter man ran away from him following a traffic stop. Police initially lied about the circumstances of Slager’s decision to use lethal force, but video from a bystander’s cell phone showed Slager calmly draw his weapon and fire eight times, hitting the 50-year-old five times in the back. Prosecutors say Slager had initially chased Scott on foot for a time before using his Taser to drop the man to the ground, then shot him dead when Scott made a second attempt to run.
The video also appears to show Slager picking up his Taser and dropping it near Scott’s dying body to support his claim he fired in self defense after Scott wrestled the stun gun away from him.
Department of Justice prosecutors cannot bring federal murder charges against state and local police, but charged Slager under a federal civil rights statute that can be applied to cops. Slager decided in May to plead guilty to the federal charge known as “deprivation of rights under color of law,” the only legal recourse that federal criminal justice officials have in police killings.
The statute behind the charge allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty for a case like Slager’s. But the plea agreement filed with the court in the spring listed the ex-cop’s maximum sentence as life imprisonment — and hinted at reducing Slager’s penalty further in exchange for his acceptance of responsibility for killing Scott illegally.
Government attorneys now say, however, that Slager didn’t hold up his end of the bargain over the months since signing the plea deal. Slager’s own court filings ahead of sentencing “sugges[t] that he may no longer be accepting responsibility for his actions,” the government wrote in a November sentencing memo to Judge David Norton. The government’s previous agreement to lower the calculation of Slager’s sentence is void “[s]hould the defendant pursue a false factual narrative and/or assert an imperfect self-defense theory at sentencing,” prosecutors wrote.
Indeed, Slager’s attorney has reverted to elements of the ex-cop’s earlier, false depiction of the killing. Despite saying publicly that he “hope[d] that Michael’s acceptance of responsibility will help the Scott family as they continue to grieve their loss,” Slager’s counsel plays a different tune in filings to Norton ahead of sentencing. Slager “was alone, axhausted, had been stripped of his Taser and was overpowered by Scott,” they wrote in one filing.
Slager further asserts, through counsel, that he acted “in fear of his life” in an “objectively reasonable” fashion — two claims he explicitly disavowed in the plea deal. In that document, Slager agreed that he “used deadly force even though it was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances” and was done “with specific intent to do something the law forbids.”
While the plea agreement explicitly noted that the government might still seek a life sentence, it is broadly unusual for prosecutors to pursue the sternest punishment available to them in a case where the defendant agrees to plead guilty. Slager’s reversion at sentencing to lies about his killing of Scott that he has already formally acknowledged are false may have pre-empted a lighter recommendation from prosecutors.
In this case, Slager’s incentive came more from the threat of a second state homicide trial than from inducements offered by the feds. The hung jury in his first trial was a stroke of luck rather than evidence of weakness in the state’s case, as an attorney for Scott’s family told ThinkProgress in the spring. The vote was reportedly 11-1 to convict, the lawyer said, with one male juror refusing to vote to convict.
It is unusual to win a conviction at all against a police officer who kills a civilian with dubious, if any, justification. Killer cops are rarely charged with crimes. Jury instructions in lethal force cases involving cops stack the legal deck in the officers’ favor, requiring prosecutors to meet a far higher burden than in civilian murder cases.
Slager’s killing of Scott wove together multiple common threads among police abuse cases. The deadly encounter began benignly, with a white cop pulling over a black driver for a broken taillight. Slager appeared to plant evidence on the dead man. He used lethal force to detain a fleeing suspect who was not armed and posed no danger to anyone. Slager’s training made clear such use of force is illegal, prosecutors note in the sentencing documents — eliminating another line of defense commonly used to exonerate officers, most recently in the cases of Betty Jo Shelby in Oklahoma, Dominique Heaggan-Brown in Wisconsin, and Jeronimo Yanez in Minnesota.
Slager won’t evade prison like so many other officers have in 2017. But his attorneys are hoping that Norton will only order the 36-year-old jailed for 10 to 12 years. His attorneys argue for leniency because his family would be adversely affected by a longer sentence.
They also cite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ pattern of deceitful testimony before congressional panels investigating the 2016 election as an example of how Slager’s pattern of false assertions about what happened that day can be viewed not as lies but as failures of memory. “A Swiss cheese memory is a symptom of stress, not an indicator of lying,” the attorneys wrote.