CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors said on Monday that a white former South Carolina policeman caught on video shooting an unarmed black man in the back committed murder, while defense lawyers argued their client did not deserve to go to prison for life for his crime.
Michael Slager, 36, pleaded guilty in May to a federal civil rights charge of using excessive force when he killed 50-year-old Walter Scott in 2015. Slager, then a North Charleston police officer, fired eight shots at Scott’s back after he fled a traffic stop, hitting him five times.
A bystander’s cellphone video of the shooting was widely seen and drew national attention to the case, which exacerbated concerns about how police treat minorities in cities across the United States.
At the sentencing hearing on Monday in U.S. District Court in Charleston, prosecutor Jared Fishman said Slager’s actions constituted second-degree murder, punishable by life in prison.
Prosecutors have said Slager showed malice, obstructed justice by moving his stun gun closer to Scott’s body after the shooting and lied to investigators.
The shooting was “deliberate, calculated and not driven by emotion,” Fishman said.
Slager’s lawyers have said his underlying offense was voluntary manslaughter, punishable by 10 to 13 years in prison, according to federal sentencing guidelines. The officer feared for his life when Scott took his stun gun during a struggle, they said.
Defense lawyer Andy Savage disputed that Slager lied about Scott trying to take his Taser or that racism drove Slager’s actions.
During Slager’s more than five years on the police force, “every ticket he wrote, every stop he made, had not the slightest indication of racial animus,” Savage said.
However, Feidin Santana, 26, who took the video of the shooting on his way to work at a barber shop on April 4, 2015, testified that he never saw Scott try to assault Slager, charge at him or reach for his stun gun.
As part of Slager’s plea agreement, prosecutors dropped two other federal charges and a pending state murder charge. A state trial last fall ended with a hung jury.
Convictions of U.S. police officers charged in on-duty fatal shootings are rare.
Scott family lawyer Chris Stewart said before the hearing that Slager deserved life in prison.
“You’ve got to send an example to the whole nation that this kind of stuff can’t happen,” he said in a telephone interview.
Reporting by Greg Lacour; Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Dan Grebler