Many remember the shocking video footage from Charleston of a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man in the back. The victim, Walter Scott, died after being shot five times while running away from the officer.
On December 7th, the officer, Michael Slager, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Previously, the City of North Charleston paid $6.5 million to Walter’s family as compensation for the shooting.
The story is remarkable because it represents one of the few times that some justice was achieved by the victims of police misconduct.
Criminal Case Against Michael Slager
To better understand the charges against Slager, it is necessary to know how Walter Scott died.
It was the day before Easter in 2015 when the paths of Michael Slager and Walter Scott crossed. Slager says he pulled over Scott for a broken taillight. The traffic stop occurred in broad daylight in a busy area of North Charleston, South Carolina.
The stop was unremarkable until Scott fled. We don’t know why he ran. Perhaps it was because he owed back child support and feared being arrested. No drugs or weapons were ever found in his car or in his possession.
Slager told investigators that he shot Scott in the back because he feared for his life. He says that at one point in the chase, he and Scott tussled and that Scott was able to take Slager’s Taser.
Investigators originally believed Slager’s version of events. Because Walter Scott died at the scene, it was the only version of events.
Later a local barber, Feidin Santana, came forward and showed authorities a cellphone video of the shooting. The video showed Scott running away from Slager and getting shot in the back multiple times. After Scott was lying on the ground, the video showed Slager dropping his Taser near Scott’s body.
To us, that is a clear indication that Slager was attempting to plant evidence and bolster his self defense theory.
Once the video surfaced, Slager was quickly arrested. In June of 2015, a South Carolina grand jury indicted Slager for murder. Despite the video, Slager continued to maintain his innocence and pleaded not guilty. Later that year, the case went to trial. After a 5-week trial, jurors couldn’t agree and the judge declared a mistrial.
The trial was noteworthy because Slager continued to maintain that he was in fear of his life when he shot Scott. At one point he testified, “I see him with a Taser in his hand as I see him spinning around. That’s the only thing I see: that Taser in his hand.”
Sources close to the investigation say that jurors nearly convicted Slager of manslaughter. They couldn’t agree, however, since some jurors still believed the killing was murder. Despite the first mistrial, prosecutors decided to go forward and try Slager again.
While the South Carolina state murder trial was waiting to get underway, a federal grand jury indicted Slager for violating Walter Scott’s civil rights, use of a firearm during a crime of violence and obstruction of justice. The obstruction charge related to Slager’s statements about Walter Scott’s alleged possession of his Taser.
Immediately after the indictment, Slager sought to get the federal charges dismissed. He claimed double jeopardy because the state and federal charges were both related to the same shooting. In his lawyers’ words,
“Slager has been attempting to defend against two simultaneous prosecutions in two distinct courts for the same offense based on precisely the same facts. This burden is crushing, unfair, highly prejudicial, time consuming, and violative of the fundamental principle of due process, double jeopardy, and cruel and unusual punishment.
The federal government and the state have benefited from joint prosecution and investigation. The financial, emotional, physical, investigative, and other burdens are substantial. Most significantly, the sheer burden in terms of the time spent on defending dual prosecution is overwhelming.
Ultimately, dual prosecution is absolutely unnecessary to the ends of justice and undermines the efficient administration of the criminal process. This is especially so where the dual prosecution is completely overlapping, simultaneous, and involves precisely the same facts, as in the present case.”
Slager’s lawyers also tried to exclude the explosively damning video taken by Feidin Santana. They said the video was “unfairly prejudicial, unreliable and unrepresentative of the events of the case.”
Those and several other motions filed by Slager were never decided. Before a new state trial began, Slager’s lawyers made a deal with both federal and state prosecutors. Michael Slager would plead guilty to the federal civil rights charge in exchange for the state dropping all charges.
Under either the state and federal charges, he faced life in prison.
In May 2017, Slager entered his guilty plea. The court revoked his bail and ordered him held until the December 7th sentencing.
Prior to sentencing, lawyers for both sides completely disagreed on how Slager should be sentenced. Prosecutors say that the officer’s actions that day amounted to murder. They demanded a life sentence. His lawyers sought a much shorter sentence arguing that Slager was in fear at the time of the shooting.
Ironically, the probation officer assigned to prepare a presentence investigation sided with Slager and not prosecutors. In most states, the prosecutors work for the state. In federal court, however, they are independent and work for the courts.
The presentence investigation report prepared by the probation officer said that Slager’s actions were tantamount to voluntary manslaughter and recommended a sentence of between 10 to 12.5 years in prison.
READ SENTENCING MEMO
At sentencing, Slager offered a partial apology to Walter’s family. In his words, “Walter Scott is no longer with his family, and I’m responsible for that. I wish it never would have happened. I wish I could go back in time.” Experienced trial lawyers know that acceptance of responsibility and heartfelt remorse go along way at sentencing. Slager’s “apology”, however, fell far short in our opinion.
In a written sentencing submission, Slager appeared to blame prosecutors instead of himself. His lawyers told the judge,
“For over two years, Federal and State authorities collaborated to convict Slager in their respective jurisdictions of crimes that would require Slager to spend the remainder of his life in prison… Undeterred by the decision(s) made by the trial jurors and an experienced and highly regarded probation officer, Federal prosecutors continue to this day their mendacious attempt to have thus Court make a finding of murder if for no other reason than to accomplish their unreasonable goal to have Slager spend the remainder of his life in prison.
They justify their advocacy with a disingenuous interpretation of the law and a false narrative of facts.”
On December 7th, U.S. District Court Judge David C. Norton sentenced Slager to 20 years. He said that the shooting was “reckless, wanton and inappropriate” and called it murder for sentencing purposes.
After the hearing, a lawyer for the Scott family told the New York Times,
“We have to get this type of justice, because being a police officer is one of the most powerful jobs in the country, and it should be respected. But that doesn’t mean you’re above the law. That doesn’t mean you can do as you please.”
Rodney Scott, Walter’s father told an audience outside the court, “Today we made history, getting justice.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said,
“Law enforcement officers have the noble calling to serve and protect. Officers who violate anyone’s rights also violate their oaths of honor, and they tarnish the names of the vast majority of officers, who do incredible work.
Those who enforce our laws must also abide by them—and this Department of Justice will hold accountable anyone who violates the civil rights of our fellow Americans. On behalf of the Department of Justice, I want to offer my condolences to the Scott family and loved ones.”
Civil Justice for Victims of Wrongful Police Shootings
The criminal conviction and subsequent 20 year sentence of a police officer in the killing of an unarmed man is certainly a milestone event. Nothing, of course, can bring back the life of a person wrongfully killed by police.
Civil remedies and damages awards are available to help the families of the victims adjust and cope with the aftermath of these tragedies. In many cases, the only justice ever available is an award of damages.
Shortly after Walter Scott died, his family began negotiating with the City of North Charleston. In October of 2015, the city council agreed to pay the family $6.5 million. A family member said that most of the money will be used to care for Walter Scott’s 4 children.
Because the settlement involved potential litigation with the city, there are few public records that can be shared. We can say, however, that at least two other people brought police brutality lawsuits against Officer Slager.
Julius Wilson said in a different lawsuit that he was pulled over in North Charleston by Officer Brad Woods. Wilson, an African American, says he was pulled over while on his way to work.
A records check revealed that although Wilson held a valid Georgia license, his driving privileges appeared to be suspended in South Carolina. Woods called for additional officers once he decided to arrest Wilson for driving.
Wilson said he was forcibly dragged out of the car and placed face down on the pavement. While being handcuffed, Wilson says that he heard Slager exclaim, “Watch out! I am going to tase.” Wilson says he was not resisting and was unarmed.
Wilson was arrested for driving under suspension although prosecutors dropped those charges.
Even though the charges were dropped, Wilson wasn’t going to let Slager get away with the vicious assault. After considerable research, Wilson discovered that Slager had used his Taser at least 14 times in his short 5-year career with the North Charleston Police Department (NCPD).
Further outside research revealed that NCPD officers shot suspects with Tasers 201 times in an 18-month period. In one, six month period, officers tased people in North Charleston once every 40 hours on average. The Pulitzer prize winning Post and Courier found that many of the people shot with the Taser were black.
In 2006, several NCPD officers shot Tasers at mentally challenged black man, Kip Black. Family members sued the department after Black died. They say he died of injuries connected with the Taser shocks.
Another Police Brutality Case Against Slager
Three days before Christmas in 2013, Jerome Stanley was sleeping in his car outside his girlfriend’s home. Officer Michael Slager approached the car and knocked on the window. (Officers have a “community caretaker” function and are allowed to check on the welfare of people sleeping in cars.)
A struggle ultimately ensued. Stanley believed that Slager wrongfully removed him from his car. The versions of events are conflicting but everyone agrees that Stanley was tased. He was then arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
At trial, he was acquitted of the disorderly charge but convicted of resisting. The conviction was based largely on the testimony of Officer Slager.
Like Julius Wilson and the family of Michael Scott, Jerome Stanley sued Slager and the North Charleston Police Department.
How Do I Sue the Police for Police Misconduct?
How do I sue the police for misconduct or causing the death of a family member is a question we hear all too often. Far too many people have died at the hands of the police. We trust the police to keep us safe but what happens when the police are the killers?
Prosecuting police misconduct and in custody death cases isn’t easy. Despite what we believe was overwhelming video evidence, jurors in Charleston couldn’t agree to convict Michael Slager of murder. In fact, most wanted to acquit him.
Are jurors’ racist? Are they part of a bigger conspiracy? We don’t think so. Unfortunately, much of society still believes that officers don’t make mistakes and that all police officers are good. Those that have been victims of police brutality know otherwise but those folks are usually excluded from jury service.
Citizen video (like that of Feidin Santana), dash cams and body cams have made police officers more accountable. They have also helped educate the public and jurors that there are many bad cops still on the street.
If you were the victim of police misconduct and suffered serious, life threatening injuries or if a loved one was killed by police or died while in custody, call us immediately.
Most lawyers will never see a jail death or police shooting case in their lifetime. These cases are difficult and insurance companies know that juries remain sympathetic to police officers. This is especially true if the person killed or assaulted has a record or was allegedly running at the time of incident. We know, of course, that everyone has rights and that those rights can’t be wrongfully taken by the police or jails.
Our national team of police misconduct lawyers have years of experience in these cases. We know how to prosecute these cases and we aren’t afraid of the police code of silence, powerful police unions or big insurance companies. (And insurance companies know we aren’t looking for a quick settlement. The only way to obtain justice from the wrongdoers is to be ready for trial.)
If you or a family member are seriously injured by out-of-control police, we can help spotlight the misconduct and maximize the financial compensation to which you and/or your family is entitled for the misconduct. 866.836.4684 or CONNECT ONLINE