A former North Charleston police officer who was caught on video fatally shooting a black motorist as he fled a traffic stop in South Carolina pleaded guilty Tuesday to a federal civil rights charge.
By admitting to the lesser charge, the Associated Press reported, Michael Slager avoids prosecution on state murder charges related to the killing of Walter Scott, 50, in April 2015. It also allows him to forego a jury trial on those charges, ABC reported.
Slager’s plea agreement also puts an end to the federal trial, which had been set to begin May 15. Now, U.S. District Judge David Norton will decide Slager’s sentencing later this month. He could face life in prison, though ABC reports the government “will advocate for Slager’s crime to be treated as a lower-level offense.”
A jury could not come to a unanimous decision last year on whether Slager, who is white, was guilty of state murder or manslaughter charges, resulting in a mistrial.
Cellphone footage showed Slager fired on Scott eight times as he fled the traffic stop unarmed. The video went viral, sparking national outrage and calls for Slager and the police department to be held accountable. The lawyer for Scott’s family said the coroner found Scott was hit three times in the back, once in the rear and once in the ear.
Federal civil rights charges against police are rare, as revealed in an investigation by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The newspaper found that out of 13,223 complaints accusing police officers of civil rights violations between 1995 and 2015, only 530 charges were filed.
Last month, a Nebraska jury found Officer Derek Payton not guilty of felony assault for firing three times on a suspect that fled a traffic stop last June. And a second trial will begin later this month for former University of Cincinnati police Officer Ray Tensing, who fatally shot an unarmed black man in a July 2015 traffic stop. The first trial ended in a hung jury.
Within hours of Slager’s guilty plea, the Justice Department said it would not pursue charges against the officers involved in last summer’s shooting of a black man, Alton Sterling, in New Orleans.
Slager has previously defended his actions by saying that he feared for his life. He said Scott wrestled his taser from him and he “fired until the threat was stopped, like I’m trained to do.”
In the state trial, Slager told the defense that the whole ordeal has “been a nightmare. My family’s been destroyed by this. Scott’s family has been destroyed by this.”
“We hope that Michael’s acceptance of responsibility will help the Scott family as they continue to grieve their loss,” Andrew J. Savage III, Slager’s attorney, said in a statement.
After the hearing, Chris Stewart, the attorney for the Scott family, praised the guilty plea. He said the families of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice — all victims of encounters with police — “didn’t get this type of justice that we got today.”
Stewart said the decision shouldn’t feed into an anti-police narrative, “because no person believes that every officer is evil.”
“Hopefully this will be the blueprint of future success for civil rights,” he said, pointing to the successful relationship between himself, the Scott family, prosecutors and the Department of Justice.
“All we want is accountability,” he added.
In a statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions pledged to that kind of accountability for “any law enforcement officer who violates the civil rights of our citizens by using excessive force.”
“Such failures of duty not only harm the individual victims of these crimes; they harm our country, by eroding trust in law enforcement and undermining the good work of the vast majority of honorable and honest police officers. As our Department works to support the courageous and professional law enforcement personnel who risk their lives every day to protect us, we will also ensure that police officers who abuse their sacred trust are made to answer for their misconduct,” he said.