A white former police officer whose killing of an unarmed black man running from a traffic stop was captured on video has pled guilty to federal civil rights charges that could send him to prison for 20 years.
The plea from Michael Slager, 35, came five months after a jury deadlocked on state murder charges against him in the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott.
South Carolina prosecutors had planned to retry Slager, but as part of Tuesday’s plea bargain, they agreed to drop the murder case.
Slager admitted violating Scott’s civil rights by shooting him without justification.
He could get up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine at sentencing, though prosecutors agreed to ask for more than 20 years behind bars. No sentencing date was set.
Slager pulled Scott over for a broken brake light in North Charleston on April 4, 2015.
The 50-year-old Scott got out of his car and tried to flee. Slager chased him and shot him with a Taser, knocking him down.
When Scott got up and ran again, Slager shot him five times in the back, killing him.
Slager had claimed that Scott tried to attack him with the Taser. A mobile phone video of the incident made by a bystander showed that Slager was in no danger and had no apparent reason for shooting Scott as he ran.
Scott’s family said he may have bolted because he was worried about going to jail because he was $18,000 behind on child support.
Slager, who has been out on bail for much of the time since the shooting, was led away in handcuffs as the family looked on.
“God never fails,” Scott’s mother, Judy Scott, said outside court.
‘Unnecessary and excessive force’
The chilling video helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged around the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
It was seized on by many as vivid proof of what they had been arguing for years: that white officers too often use deadly force unnecessarily against black people.
According to the Mapping Police Violence database, police killed at least 308 black people in the US in 2016, and black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people.
The plea agreement made no mention of race but said Slager used deadly force knowing that it was “unnecessary and excessive, and therefore unreasonable under the circumstances”.
The state prosecutor who pursued the murder charges, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, said in a statement that she was satisfied with the case’s resolution.
She said it “vindicates the state’s interests” by holding Slager accountable.
The officer, who was fired after the video became public, testified at the murder trial that he feared for his life because Scott was trying to grab his stun gun.
The video showed Slager picking the Taser up off the ground and dropping it near Scott’s body in what prosecutors suggested was an attempt to plant evidence.
Slager denied that, testifying he was following his training in accounting for his weapons.
Slager also testified last year that he regretted what happened, saying, “My family has been destroyed by it. The Scott family has been destroyed by it. It’s horrible.”
Outside court on Tuesday, Chris Stewart, an attorney who won $6.5m for the Scott family in a settlement with the city of North Charleston, said: “We know what justice truly looks like. It doesn’t look like a big settlement check. It looks like today.”
As for what punishment Slager should receive, Scott’s brother, Anthony, said, “Murder deserves life in prison.”
Slager attorney Andy Savage had little to say outside court. “This is a day for the Scott family and the government,” he said.
Alton Sterling case
Separately on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that the US justice department has decided not to charge two white Baton Rouge police officers in the death of a black man whose fatal shooting was captured on mobile phone video, sparking protests in Louisiana’s capital and beyond.
Federal authorities opened a civil rights investigation immediately after the July 5, 2016, police shooting that killed Alton Sterling, 37, outside a convenience store where he was selling homemade CDs.
A person familiar with the decision disclosed it to the AP on Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
The department’s decision does not preclude state authorities from conducting their own investigation and pursuing their own criminal charges.
Two videos of Sterling’s deadly struggle with two white officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, quickly spread on social media after the shooting.
A police report says Sterling was initially jolted with a stun gun after he did not comply with the officers’ commands to put his hands on the hood of a car.
The report also says the officers saw the butt of a gun in one of Sterling’s pants pockets and saw him try to reach for it before he was shot.