Federal authorities expect to try Michael Slager, the former North Charleston policeman who killed Walter Scott, on civil rights charges sometime this spring, sources said Tuesday, a week after a state murder trial ended with a hung jury.
Though local prosecutors vowed after the recent mistrial to retry him, Slager also is charged with three federal counts that were put on hold until the state proceeding wrapped up.
Attorneys in the federal case met privately Tuesday with U.S. District Judge David Norton and discussed plans to go to trial in the springtime, sources familiar with the development said Tuesday. No exact date was set.
No hearings have been held in the case since August, and Tuesday’s meeting happened behind closed doors.
Still unknown is whether the state's retrial will be scheduled earlier. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson is pushing for her case to be heard again quickly, but the scheduling would be up to presiding Circuit Judge Clifton Newman.
"We will be ready whenever the court calls," Wilson said Tuesday. "We can be ready immediately. We hope a retrial will be sooner rather than later."
Slager's defense team, led by attorney Andy Savage, has said that the federal indictments were "extreme" and that the former lawman was "carrying the burden of many past cases that were handled differently." He expressed a similar stance in the state's case, arguing that Slager should have never been charged with murder.
Slager, now 35, stopped Scott's car April 4, 2015, for a broken brake light, but Scott soon ran away. Chasing after the motorist, Slager said he used a Taser to subdue Scott, who then grabbed the device and yanked it away. The officer testified in the murder trial that Scott came after him twice with the weapon, so he opened fire with his .45-caliber pistol. He said he kept shooting until Scott no longer posed a threat.
But an eyewitness also was filming the action, and the resulting video showed Scott pulling away from the patrolman as the Taser bounced to the ground. Scott had run about 17 feet from the officer when Slager started shooting. Five of the eight bullets that were fired hit Scott from behind.
The film prompted Slager's arrest by state investigators three days after the shooting, but the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office opened their own probe. The fruits of their efforts were made public in May, when a federal grand jury indicted Slager.
Under the most serious indictment, deprivation of rights under color of law, Slager was alleged to have used his authority as a police officer to violate Scott’s right to be free from unreasonable force. He’s also charged with using a firearm in that alleged crime.
The federal authorities also said Slager misled investigators by indicating that he had fired while Scott came at him with the Taser. He was charged with obstruction of justice.
Though Slager is white and Scott was black, race is not alleged to have played a role in the killing that came amid a national discussion about police uses of force against black people.
Slager would face up to life in prison if he's convicted of the most serious charge. A conviction on a murder count would have exposed him to the same punishment, though manslaughter would carry between two and 30 years behind bars.
Legal experts said the federal authorities likely pursued charges against Slager to create a backstop if the state’s murder case were to fail. But it’s unusual, many said, for a federal prosecution to move through the court system at the same time as a state case; such charges are usually filed after the first case is resolved.
Slager’s murder trial lasted a month and included 55 witnesses, but after four days of deliberations, 12 jurors could not agree on his fate. They had three options: murder, voluntary manslaughter or acquittal. The jury indicated that at least one member refused to convict Slager of anything, while several were undecided late in their talks.
Within hours of the judge declaring a mistrial Dec. 5, Wilson announced her intentions to retry Slager. Scott's family members, meanwhile, reminded supporters of the civil rights case and voiced faith that a verdict in one of the cases would eventually be reached.