Former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager will spend 20 years in federal prison for killing unarmed motorist Walter Scott in 2015 and trying to blame the incident on the dead man, a judge ruled Thursday.
Slager may receive time-served credit that would leave him to serve about 18 years further. There is no parole in the federal prison system. Prior to issuing his final ruling, Norton said he saw no perfect solution. “No matter what sentence I give, neither the Scott family nor the Slager family is going to like it or think it’s right,” he said, according to Post and Courier reporter Andrew Knapp.
Norton could have sentenced the former officer far more harshly. Slager’s fate is governed by a federal civil rights law rather than directly by a homicide statute. Slager pleaded guilty in the federal case partly to preempt a second trial in state court on murder charges that could have sent him to death row.
Sentencing in the civil rights statute is something of a bank-shot, requiring Norton to determine what underlying offenses Slager is guilty of having committed that trigger the federal statute that makes it a crime for law enforcement to violate someone’s civil rights. It’s a broadly flexible statute that is the only federal tool for charging local and state police officers for on-duty crimes.
By determining Slager’s underlying offense was second-degree murder, though, Norton signaled he would look to sentencing guidelines that advise a 19- to 24-year sentence on the murder. Norton was free to go above or below that range, and to add years for Slager’s attempted cover-up of the crime as captured on cell phone video and established in his guilty plea.
Despite Slager agreeing in his guilty plea that his decision to shoot Scott as he fled was unreasonable and excessive, attorneys for the ex-cop argued at sentencing that he “was provoked into firing,” the local Post and Courier reported. Slager effectively reneged on his plea deal, which required full acceptance of sole responsibility for Scott’s death.
The reversal caused federal prosecutors to ask the judge for a life sentence instead of merely decades in prison. Slager’s team, meanwhile, submitted written material from the ex-officer’s family members urging the judge to be merciful lest his children grow up without a dad. His family members appeared in person Thursday before Judge Norton. “He did a lot of good for a lot of people,” the father Tom Slager said.
Regardless, Slager now faces an unusually stiff penalty compared to the overall body of killer police. Most are never charged. Among the few who do face trial, convictions are also rare. Slager himself eluded a verdict in his initial state murder trial, with one lawyer for the Scott family telling ThinkProgress that a lone holdout juror refused to vote to convict the officer and forced a mistrial.
Numerous other police officers who killed black men with thin justification have managed to avoid prison this year. Betty Jo Shelby was acquitted by an Oklahoma jury in her killing of unarmed motorist Terence Crutcher. The jury later published an open letter expressing frustration and a sense that the law forced them to acquit Shelby even though the group felt her decision to kill was unwarranted. Jeronimo Yanez was similarly acquitted in the killing of Philando Castile, who he’d stopped over a busted tail light in Minnesota and then, video shows, shot suddenly in a panic as the man tried to inform the officer he had a legal, licensed firearm in the car.
Some of Scott’s living family members offered Slager their forgiveness in court during the last testimony phase of the sentencing hearing. Judy Scott, Walter’s mother, “said her faith in God gives her the ability to forgive” the ex-cop, the Washington Post reported.
“I’m not angry at you, Michael. Michael, I forgive you, and Michael, I do pray for you now and for your family, because we’ve gone through a traumatic time,” Scott’s brother Anthony said in court, according to the Associated Press.
“Forgiveness came easy for (other family members),” Anthony Scott added, according to the Post and Courier. “It came very hard for me.”
Others from Scott’s family sought to remind the court of the awful impact of Slager’s crime in more pointed terms.
“Miles will never forget the screaming & hollering of his dad on the phone,” Scott’s brother Rodney said, referring to Scott’s son. “That’s been chiseled in his brain, his father screaming for dear life.”
This article has been updated to reflect that there is no parole for federal crimes.