A federal judge Monday declined to toss out the prison sentence of a former South Carolina police officer who fatally shot an unarmed Black man in the back in 2015.
The judge denied a motion in which former North Charleston police Officer Michael Slager asked that his 20-year prison sentence for violating Walter Scott’s civil rights be set aside.
Scott’s death sparked renewed Black Lives Matter protests, as he became the latest in a series of unarmed Black men killed by police. This week’s ruling in the case comes as the nation awaits a verdict in another high-profile police killing of a Black man, George Floyd.
Slager, who was sentenced in 2017, argued in part that his attorneys were ineffective.
In his ruling, US District Judge Richard Gergel wrote in negotiating a plea deal, Slager’s legal team “fell well within the bounds of reasonable professional competence and practice.”
Slager’s 2016 state murder trial ended in a mistrial, but Slager in May 2017 pleaded guilty to violation of Scott’s civil rights by acting under the color of law. In exchange for the 2017 plea, state murder charges, as well as two other federal charges, were dismissed.
The civil rights offense has a maximum penalty of life in prison, though the plea agreement stated that the government would ask the court to apply sentencing guidelines for second-degree murder, which carries up to 25 years in prison.
Slager’s defense at the time argued for a lesser sentence, saying that Slager’s actions were more akin to voluntary manslaughter. A probation officer had recommended Slager be sentenced to 10 to 13 years in prison.
Gergel wrote it was Slager, not his legal team, that sealed his fate.
“What sealed petitioner’s fate regarding malice was not the language of his plea agreement or the performance of his defense counsel, but his own willful act of shooting an unarmed man in the back five times as he ran for his life,” Gergel wrote.
“Compounding these horrible facts was petitioner’s inconsistent and obviously false statements about the circumstances of the incident, with which he destroyed his credibility.”
Gergel wrote that Slager, during a sentencing hearing, “attempted to blame the victim,” and now was trying to “blame his defense counsel and the trial judge.”
“But a careful review of this entire tragic episode makes plain that petitioner has no one to blame for his present predicament and sentence but himself,” Gergel wrote. “Petitioner is the architect of his own demise. The court finds that petitioner’s defense counsel ably and zealously represented him, and that petitioner’s claim that he was provided ineffective assistance of counsel is wholly without merit.”
The 2015 shooting
Slager, then a North Charleston police officer, shot Scott, 50, in the back in 2015 as the unarmed man was running away from Slager after a traffic stop for a broken tail light.
Slager had tried to use his Taser twice as Scott tried to get away. The first attempt did not stop Scott, and the second deployment dropped Scott to the ground, but Scott got up and took off running again.
Slager initially said he feared for his life because Scott had grabbed his Taser before running away, but the plea agreement contained no such claim.
As a foot chase ensued, a bystander’s cell phone video captured Slager firing eight times, striking Scott five times in the back.