Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty Tuesday to violating Walter Scott’s civil rights by shooting the fleeing black man five times — a sudden shift after insisting for two years he had gunned down Scott in self-defense.
Slager reached the agreement with prosecutors a week before a jury was scheduled to be selected for his trial in federal court. Under the "global" plea deal, state authorities promptly dropped a separate state murder charge. Two other federal counts of lying to investigators and using a firearm in a violent crime also will be dismissed.
Though a sentence was not agreed upon, the plea eliminates the unpredictability of a jury trial and will place key issues affecting Slager’s punishment squarely in the hands of a judge who'll decide in the coming weeks whether the officer committed murder in shooting Scott.
The charge — deprivation of rights under the color of law, carries as little as no prison time and as much as life behind bars.
Scott's loved ones and their attorneys praised the occasion as a rare felony conviction that never came in countless other police shootings nationwide. They watched Slager stand in U.S. District Court in Charleston and make a key admission, that he had used excessive force against Scott and acted willfully with an intent to break the law.
"Today, he told the truth," Scott's oldest brother, Anthony, said after the hearing. "That is our victory."
Captured on video that spread worldwide, the April 2015 shooting following a traffic stop for a minor violation gave credence to long-standing allegations of unfair policing in North Charleston. The stark evidence brought intense scrutiny to the city amid a broader inspection of police uses of force against black people. Slager is white.
North Charleston ultimately paid $6.5 million to Scott's family.
"Justice doesn't look like a big settlement check; it looks like today," Chris Stewart, a Scott family attorney, said. "Today is a monumental day ... for civil rights."
Slager, 35, hugged his lead attorney after entering the plea. From a front-row bench, his mother and wife watched as authorities handcuffed Slager and led him from the packed courtroom. He was later booked into the Charleston County jail where he had spent about eight months after his arrest.
"We hope that Michael’s acceptance of responsibility will help the Scott family as they continue to grieve their loss," his attorney, Andy Savage, said in a statement.
The civil rights case, scheduled for May 15, would have been the second trial Slager faced. The first, on the state murder charge, ended last year in a hung jury.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who prosecuted that state case, said the federal conviction captures an element the murder trial would not have: that a policeman had violated Scott's rights. She hoped the resolution would make law enforcement safer.
"We have to turn this around," she said. "My hope is that accountability for Michael Slager means that fewer officers will die, that fewer civilians will die."
Murder still a factor
The patrolman pulled over Scott’s car on April 4, 2015 because of broken brake light. The motorist soon ran.
As the officer tried to subdue Scott with a Taser, they got into a fight. Slager said Scott took the stun gun and that he fired out of fear for his own life.
But bystander Feidin Santana stood behind a nearby fence filming the action with a cellphone. The footage showed Scott running as the Taser bounded along the ground. Slager started shooting when Scott was more than 10 feet away.
Afterward, Slager picked up the Taser and dropped it near Scott’s lifeless body, only to fetch it within seconds.
Slager wasn’t jailed until three days later, after the video emerged publicly. By then, federal authorities alleged, Slager had lied to state investigators by saying Scott was coming at him when he fired, a contradiction to the video evidence.
U.S. District Judge David Norton can consider that alleged deception in deciding a sentence.
Before the next hearing, federal probation agents will compile a report portraying the various aggravating and mitigating factors in the crime. But Norton will have other elements to consider. The sentencing itself could amount to a days-long miniature trial without the same rules of evidence.
Norton will likely decide whether Slager committed murder or manslaughter in the killing, said Deborah Barbier, a defense lawyer in Columbia who spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor. The length of imprisonment could hinge on that determination.
That Slager already acknowledged the shooting was "willful" bolsters prosecutors' murder argument, she said.
“It’s not as if the (murder) charges being dismissed means that Walter Scott's death won’t be considered," Barbier said. "It’s going to be front and center in what the government argues.”
Offer of forgiveness
Ferreting out the circumstances leading to the civil rights violation also is important to the community that has long lamented policing tactics in North Charleston, said Bill Nettles, a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina.
“With cases like this, it’s easy to focus on punishing the accused,” said Nettles, now an adviser to North Charleston's new citizens police commission. “But getting a full presentation of the issue can allow us as a community to learn from this tragedy.”
Some of those residents greeted Tuesday’s development with skepticism.
Ed Bryant, president of the NAACP chapter in North Charleston, was one of several local activists who said they would accept nothing less than life in prison for Slager.
“It’s murder regardless of what people think,” he said. “The whole world has seen that. They know what he’s done.”
Scott's mother, though, walked out of the courthouse and stood in front of a bank of microphones. She raised her hands, smiled and thanked God. And she forgave Slager before deflecting a question about how many years of imprisonment she thought he deserves.
"Michael Slager admitted what he did," she said. "That was enough years for me because no matter how many years Michael Slager gets, it would not bring back my son.”