By MEG KINNARD
CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A white former South Carolina police officer committed second-degree murder when he shot an unarmed black motorist to death and should expect to spend about two decades in prison, a judge said Thursday as he prepared to sentence the ex-officer for a federal civil rights violation.
Before U.S. District Judge David Norton announced the punishment, he had to decide whether Michael Slager’s shooting of Walter Scott in April 2015 was manslaughter or murder. After the judge’s decision, he said he’d work from guidelines that recommend Slager spend 19 to 24 years in prison.
A formal sentence was expected later Thursday, after the judge hears 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.
Attorneys for ex-North Charleston Officer Michael Slager said he shot 50-year-old Walter Scott in self-defense after the two fought and Scott reached for Slager’s stun gun. They said race didn’t play any role in the shooting 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 the plea agreement reached in May, prosecutors dropped state murder charges. A year ago, a state judge declared a mistrial when jurors deadlocked.
A bystander captured the shooting on a cellphone, and it was shared around the world, setting off Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. as demonstrators said it was the perfect example of police officers’ mistreatment of African-Americans.
The bystander 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 and can’t fathom not being able to watch with him the game they both loved.
“I miss my father every day,” Miles Scott said 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.”
Federal officials recommended 10 to nearly 13 years in prison. His attorneys argue Slager should face far less time.