Michael T. Slager, the white police officer whose video-recorded killing of an unarmed black motorist in North Charleston, S.C., starkly illustrated the turmoil over racial bias in US policing, was sentenced Thursday to 20 years in prison, after the judge in the case ruled that the shooting had been a murder.
The sentence was pronounced in US District Court in Charleston about seven months after Slager pleaded guilty to violating the civil rights of Walter L. Scott when he shot and killed him in April 2015. It concluded one of the few cases in which a police officer has been prosecuted for an on-duty shooting.
Federal prosecutors had urged that Slager be sentenced to life in prison for a shooting that they contended amounted to second-degree murder. Slager’s defense lawyers, and the US Probation Office, had recommended that the federal judge in the case, David C. Norton, treat the shooting as akin to voluntary manslaughter instead.
On Thursday, the fourth day of the sentencing proceedings, Norton said he had concluded that the killing should be considered murder.
Although the sentence fell short of what prosecutors had sought, the fact that Slager was convicted of any crime at all in the case made it a milestone in the national debate about police conduct.
Slager, who has been jailed in Charleston County since he entered his guilty plea in early May, was a patrolman in North Charleston, the third-largest city in South Carolina, when he stopped Scott for a broken taillight in 2015. The traffic stop, on the Saturday before Easter, was mostly unremarkable until Scott got out of his car and began to run. Scott’s family believes that he fled because he feared being arrested over unpaid child support.
Slager gave chase and caught up with Scott, and according to the officer’s later testimony, the two men struggled over the officer’s Taser device.
But Scott soon broke away, unarmed, and began to run again. Slager raised his pistol, pointed it at Scott’s back, and fired eight shots.
Scott, who was at least 17 feet from Slager when the officer opened fire, fell to the ground.
A barber who was walking to work, Feidin Santana, recorded the shooting and its aftermath on his cellphone. Santana did not immediately come forward with his recording, and authorities initially believed Slager’s account of the encounter with Scott. But Santana’s footage transformed the case.
Slager was swiftly fired and arrested, and the city of North Charleston agreed to a $6.5 million settlement with Scott’s family. Slager was tried for murder in state court in 2016, but the jury deadlocked, and a mistrial was declared.
Defense lawyers worked out a plea agreement to settle all of the charges Slager faced in state and federal court. But the accord with the Justice Department left open whether the killing of Scott had been tantamount to second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter.