Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

South Carolina Police Officer Sentenced For Shooting An Unarmed Black Man


A federal court in South Carolina has sentenced a former police officer to 20 years in prison for killing an unarmed black man. Michael Slager, who is white, shot Walter Scott from behind as Scott was running away from a traffic stop in 2015. A bystander recorded it all on his cellphone. South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen was at the sentencing and is with us now from Charleston. Hi.


MCEVERS: Hi. So it's really rare for police officers in these cases to even be prosecuted - right? - for shootings that happened while they were on duty. So just give us some background. How did we get here?

HANSEN: Yeah, sure. So exactly a year ago this week, Michael Slager's state murder trial ended in a hung jury. Jurors could not decide if he committed murder, manslaughter, and that case ended in a mistrial. Now, the state - they had planned to retry him, but then Slager decided to plead guilty this past May to a federal civil rights charge of violating Walter Scott's civil rights, basically admitting that he had used excessive force in this case. Again, we're talking about an officer who fired eight shots at this man as he fled. The hope in pleading guilty was for less time behind bars. That crime carries anywhere from no time to life behind bars.

MCEVERS: And so today, of course, as we just said - 20 years in prison. And you were there. What happened in the courtroom?

HANSEN: The judge got straight to it. He began right away this morning. He said that Michael Slager did commit second-degree murder. Again, that's something that state jurors could not decide - also said he obstructed justice, again, something they could not decide. He says there was no fight. Walter Scott did not take his Taser. That's Slager's Taser. And the judge says that Slager obstructed justice by moving that Taser from where he had dropped it next to Walter Scott's body and then by lying to investigators, changing his story over time.

But he said he would also take into account, as the defense has argued, Slager's had a pretty tough time in prison. He has become vilified in the public eye. He's been in isolation, has been since his incarceration. But you know, the judge did not sentence even right then. He listened to some pretty powerful victim impact statements, including hearing from Walter Scott's own mother. Jude (ph) Scott held a picture of her son and repeatedly turned to Michael Slager.

At one point she turned to him, and she said she forgived him. And he wiped his face. And then it appeared that he mouthed the words, I'm sorry. And then she quietly said, I know. It was then Slager's family's turn. They talked about his service in the community, how he had been an upstanding man. And that's when the judge sentenced. He didn't take a break. Right after all that victim impact testimony, he said neither side is going to be happy, but he believes 20 years is justice in this case.

MCEVERS: Wow. It's just something we rarely see in cases like this. What was the reaction from both sides after the sentencing?

HANSEN: You could see a visible weight off the Scott's family shoulders. They came out. They spoke to the media. They were happy. They're rejoicing. They called this an historic legal and world victory. They say they're grateful to that young man, Feidin Santana, the one who took that cell phone video. He was just walking to work that day and saw the chase and grabbed his phone. They hope that this not only serves as a road map for other families who are seeking justice, but they also hope it's the beginning of the end to racially charged police shootings. They say they hope that officers will think twice before making similar decisions. Now, I did reach out to the defense. I've spoken with them in the past. And they said they did not want to comment.

MCEVERS: There were protests in Charleston before after the shooting. Any signs of demonstrations there today?

HANSEN: Local civil rights leaders - they were in court for the past four days, no rallies outside whatsoever. They spoke with me afterwards. They say they are pleased, but they are cautiously so. Again, this is a nation where we have seen several officer-involved shootings. But they say at least this one has ended with a lengthy sentence.

MCEVERS: South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen in Charleston, thank you very much.

HANSEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.