Attorneys for ex-North Charleston Officer Michael Slager said he shot 50-year-old Scott in self-defense after the two fought and Scott grabbed Slager’s stun gun. They said race didn’t play a role in the shooting and Slager never had any “racial animus” toward minorities.
Still, Slager pleaded guilty in federal court to violating Scott’s civil rights. As part of the plea agreement reached in May, prosecutors dropped state murder charges. A year ago, a state judge declared a mistrial when jurors deadlocked in that case.
“This is a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened,” U.S. District Judge David Norton said.
A bystander recorded the shooting on a cellphone, and it was shared around the world, setting off protests across the U.S. as demonstrators said it was another egregious example of police officers mistreating African-Americans.
Slager fired at Scott’s back from 17 feetaway. Five of eight bullets hit him.
After the shooting, Slager picked up his stun gun and placed it next to Scott. Slager contends he was securing the weapon. Prosecutors think he put it there to bolster his self-defense story.
The video was considered 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.
When the jury failed to reach a verdict in the state murder case, many black people and others were shocked and distressed, because the video seemed to some to be an open-and-shut case. Some despaired of ever seeing justice.
Scott’s family testified before the sentence was handed down and said they had forgiven Slager.
“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,” said Scott’s brother Anthony.
The shooting angered local African-Americans who complained for years that North Charleston police harassed blacks, pulling them over or questioning them unnecessarily as they cracked down on crime. But after the shooting, the Scott family successfully pleaded for calm, asking everyone to let the justice system run its course.
Before the sentence was handed down, the judge had to decide whether the shooting amounted to second-degree murder or manslaughter. Norton found that it was murder.
“No matter what sentence I give, neither the Scott family nor the Slager family is going to think that it’s right,” the judge said.
An emotional Slager told the Scott family that he was grateful for their forgiveness.
“This tragic event that occurred in seconds has changed the lives of everyone involved,” he said. “With my actions that day, Walter Scott is no longer with his family, and I am responsible for that.”
The judge also found that Slager, 36, obstructed justice when he made statements to state police after the shooting.
A pre-sentencing report for Slager found that he committed manslaughter and recommended 10 to nearly 13 years in prison. But the judge was not bound by that review.
If Slager had faced another state trial and been convicted of murder, he could have been sentenced to anywhere from 30 years to life in prison.
Former North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager was sentenced Thursday to 20 years in prison in the fatal shooting of unarmed black man Walter Scott.
U.S. District Judge David Norton ruled that Slager committed second-degree murder and obstruction of justice when he shot and killed Scott on April 4, 2015.
A video shot by a witness emerged after the shooting and appeared to show Slager firing at Scott as he ran away. Slager was fired from the police force after the shooting.
Slager was initially charged with murder in South Carolina. He pleaded not guilty and his attorney said Slager shot Scott because he feared for his life. The case ended in a mistrial in 2016.
Slager had pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights offense in May. The plea ended the federal case against Slager, as well as remaining state charges that were pending after the mistrial.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.