Feidin Santana, the bystander who filmed Walter Scott's death, was a more credible witness than the North Charleston police officer who shot Scott, a judge said Tuesday in a formal order that will send the former lawman to a federal prison.
Michael Slager, 36, pleaded guilty to violating Scott's civil rights when he shot the fleeing black motorist, and U.S. District Judge David Norton sentenced him on Dec. 7 to 20 years behind bars. But Slager has remained in the Charleston County jail for more than a month since then.
Norton's 57-page written order Tuesday laid out in detail the reasons for the penalty, largely rejecting Slager’s explanation of the killing and discarding a contention that Scott had provoked the gunfire by taking the policeman’s Taser during a fight. The move also cleared the way for Slager to be transferred to a prison and for his lawyers to appeal the punishment that came as a surprise to many observers.
The judge supported a version of the shooting that Slager and his defense team have disputed. But Slager, he contended, is a liar.
"Slager’s contradictory stories render him an incredible witness," Norton said in the order. "Given the choice between Slager’s self-serving, evolving, and internally inconsistent testimony and Santana’s (testimony) ... the court gives more weight to Santana’s account of events. Santana’s testimony reveals that Scott was not on top of Slager during the ground altercation, that Scott never had the taser, and that Scott was running away from Slager when he was shot and killed."
Slager's lead attorney, Andy Savage of Charleston, said he had not yet read the written judgment. Soon after the ruling was issued Slager's formal notice of appeal was filed.
Most pivotal in settling on the 20-year prison sentence was the judge's finding that Slager committed second-degree murder while violating Scott's rights. Notably, Norton cited Slager's own plea agreement in which the former officer acknowledged "willfully" breaking the law by shooting Scott, a wrinkle that the judge said barred Slager from again claiming self-defense.
Slager had faced up to life in prison. In lowering the sentence from that ceiling, the judge considered Slager's otherwise "spotless life" and the potential for former officers to be assaulted behind bars. Norton also factored in the successive state and federal prosecutions of Slager that raised a "specter of unfairness." A state murder trial in late 2016 ended in a hung jury.
In the filing, Norton explained the facts as he saw them.
Slager pulled over Scott's car on April 5, 2015, for a broken brake light. Scott, 50, soon jumped out and ran.
The officer tried to use a Taser to subdue Scott, who eventually fell to the ground.
But in the ensuing altercation, there was no evidence that Scott assaulted Slager and took the Taser, the judge said.
With a cellphone camera, Santana captured what happened next.
As Scott stood and started running away, the video showed, the Taser fell behind Slager. Scott never turned around to attack the officer.
That's what made the eight gunshots Slager fired at the fleeing man a "gross deviation from the standard of reasonable care," the judge ruled, deciding that Slager had acted with malice, a component of murder. Five of the bullets hit Scott from behind.
Norton rejected arguments that Scott's attempts to get away had provoked the officer, an element of voluntary manslaughter.
While Scott's escape bid was "wrongful" and escalated the encounter, the judge said, it was not violent, and it didn't warrant Slager's response.
"Shooting a man dead for ... not following instructions ... is not proportional," he wrote.
After the gunfire, Slager picked up his Taser and dropped it near Scott's lifeless body only to fetch it again seconds later.
Norton didn't fault Slager for moving the stun gun and agreed that other explanations, such as an officer's responsibility to secure loose weapons, were plausible.
But Slager did obstruct justice by later lying investigators, the judge said in another finding that raised the prison sentence.
When he was interviewed three days after the shooting, Slager made it clear to State Law Enforcement Division agents that Scott was coming at him with the Taser when he opened fire, the judge wrote, deeming SLED's documentation as the "most accurate" version of what the officer said.
Slager has contradicted the agents' telling of his own story, though, insisting that Scott was turning as he fired.
But portions of Slager's account clearly changed with time, the judge said, discrediting a contention that trauma had affected his memory.
"Slager used the SLED interview to advance his false narrative of being forced to fire when Scott was coming towards him with a Taser," Norton said. "Had (SLED) not already received the Santana video at the time of the interview, Slager’s statement would have sent the investigation into the Scott shooting on quite a different trail."