CHARLESTON, S.C. - A white former South Carolina police officer committed second-degree murder when he shot an unarmed black motorist to death and has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for a federal civil rights violation.
U.S. District Judge David Norton had to decide whether Michael Slager's shooting of Walter Scott in April 2015 was manslaughter or murder before he sentenced the ex-officer. After he found that the shooting was murder, the judge said he worked from guidelines that recommend Slager spend 19 to 24 years in prison.
A formal sentence was announced around noon Thursday, after the judge heard testimony from Scott's family and friends. Scott's mother, Judy Scott, said through tears that her faith in God gives her the ability to forgive Slager. Scott's brother Anthony Scott echoed that sentiment.
"I'm not angry at you, Michael. Michael, I forgive you, and Michael, I do pray for you now and for your family, because we've gone through a traumatic time," he said.
The shooting was captured on a bystander's cellphone and shared around the world, setting off Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. as demonstrators said it was another egregious example of police officers' mistreatment of African-Americans.
The shooting angered local African-Americans who complained for years that North Charleston police harassed blacks, pulling them over or questioning them unnecessarily as they cracked down on crime. But the Scott family successfully pleaded for calm, asking everyone to let the justice system run its course.
Two months after the shooting, a young white man killed nine black church members in a racially motivated attacked during a Bible study in Charleston. The family members of the church shooting victims struck a similar forgiveness tone after that attack.
Attorneys for Slager said he shot the 50-year-old Scott in self-defense after the two fought and Scott reached for Slager's stun gun. They said Slager never had any "racial animus" toward minorities.
Still, Slager pleaded guilty in federal court to violating Scott's civil rights. As part of the plea agreement reached in May, prosecutors dropped state murder charges. A year ago, a state judge declared a mistrial when jurors deadlocked.
The bystander's video started recording after the struggle between Slager and Scott. The video showed Scott running away from Slager and the officer firing eight times. Scott was hit in the back five times.
After the shooting, Slager picked up his stun gun and placed it next to Scott. Slager contends he was securing the weapon. Prosecutors think he put it there to bolster his self-defense story.
The judge also found that Slager, 36, obstructed justice when he made statements to state police after the shooting.
On Wednesday, Scott's youngest son spoke so he could return to his high school classes. Clutching a photograph of his father, Miles Scott said he has had trouble sleeping ever since his father's death. He said he misses watching football games with his dad.
"I miss my father every day," Miles Scott told the judge through tears. "I would like you to sentence the defendant to the strongest sentence the laws allows because he murdered my one and only father."
A pre-sentencing report for Slager found that he committed manslaughter and recommended 10 to nearly 13 years in prison. But the judge was not bound by that decision.
Convictions in police officer shootings are uncommon in the U.S. and prison time is even rarer.
South Carolina has been aggressive in charging white officers who shoot unarmed black people. Four have pleaded guilty in state or federal court in the past six years. But only Slager and former state trooper Sean Groubert, who shot a man as he tried to get his wallet during a seat belt violation check, will have been sent to prison. Groubert was sentenced to five years behind bars.
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