COLUMBIA, S.C. — An appellate court has upheld the conviction and 20-year sentence of a white former South Carolina policeman for the shooting death of an unarmed black motorist who was running away from a traffic stop.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made that determination Tuesday in the case of Michael Slager, writing that a judge "committed no reversible error" in sentencing Slager in 2017. Attorneys for the former North Charleston police officer said they planned to ask the court to reconsider.
U.S. District Judge David Norton sentenced Slager after the ex-officer pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation in the 2015 shooting death of Walter Scott, who ran from Slager after a traffic stop.
A bystander captured the shooting on cellphone video, which was shared around the world, setting off protests across the U.S. as demonstrators said it was another example of police officers mistreating African-Americans. The case became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Attorneys for Slager said he shot the 50-year-old Scott in self-defense after the two fought and Scott grabbed Slager's stun gun, but that Slager got carried away. Additionally, they said race didn't play a role in the shooting of the black motorist and that Slager never had any "racial animus" toward minorities.
Still, Slager pleaded guilty in federal court to violating Scott's civil rights. As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to drop state murder charges that still lingered after a first state proceeding ended in a mistrial when a jury couldn't agree whether he had committed a crime.
Slager is one of only a few police officers to go to prison for a fatal shooting, and his sentence was the stiffest since the shootings came under scrutiny in recent years.
On Tuesday, Elizabeth Franklin-Best, one of Slager's appellate lawyers, said the team was disappointed in the decision and expected to file a petition for rehearing in the near future.
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said Tuesday that while the decision won't bring Scott back, "it provides some small measure of justice for communities and families that are too often impacted by the tragic and fatal shootings of unarmed African Americans."
During the 2017 federal sentencing proceedings, relatives of Scott urged a judge to mete out a significant punishment for Slager, telling the former officer they felt sorrow for him and the loss his young children would feel in his absence.
"I forgive Michael Slager. I forgive you," Scott's mother, Judy, said as she turned toward her son's killer. "I pray for you, that you would repent and let Jesus come in your life."
Sitting just a few feet away, Slager wiped tears from his eyes and mouthed: "I'm sorry."
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