CHARLESTON, S.C. – The video was viewed millions of times around the world. It was somewhat blurry, recorded from a distance, but it clearly showed an unarmed black man running from a white officer, who shot him five times in the back.
On Thursday, relatives of that fleeing motorist described the pain of reliving Walter Scott’s death each time the cellphone video aired. Over and over, they’ve watched Scott crumple to the ground, never to rise again.
They know nothing will bring back Scott, the 50-year-old father who loved football, cartoons and Saturday morning pancake breakfasts with his family. But they also know the images helped bring them solace, in the form of a 20-year federal prison sentence for the man responsible.
Would Michael Slager have received such a stiff sentence without the video?
“Of course not,” Chris Stewart, an attorney for Scott’s family, said Thursday. “You can’t believe the initial narrative. Investigate.”
The officer’s first story, the one Scott’s family disputed since the April 4, 2015, shooting, was Slager’s claim of self-defense. The North Charleston officer said he felt afraid and threatened when Scott grabbed his stun gun and charged at him.
It’s the story Slager first told state police officers when they questioned him several days after the shooting.
Then the video surfaced. The bystander who shot it on his way to work at a barber shop said he was afraid to take it to police after the officer’s narrative emerged, and instead shared it with Scott’s family. When they released the images publicly, people could see the shooting themselves – and see that Slager was lying, Stewart and prosecutors have said.
The video doesn’t capture the fight between the two men, but it shows Slager shoot Scott from a distance, run back to retrieve his stun gun, and then drop it by the man’s lifeless body. He had fired eight shots, hitting Scott five times in the back as he ran from a traffic stop.
The images set off protests across the U.S. as demonstrators said it was another egregious example of police officers mistreating African-Americans. Many seized on the video as proof of what they had argued for years: White officers too often use deadly force unnecessarily against black people.
Slager, 36, was fired after the video became public, and is one of only a few police officers to go to prison for an on-duty shooting. His sentence is by far the stiffest since shootings of unarmed black men came under scrutiny in recent years.
Before sentencing, Scott’s relatives urged a judge to mete out a significant punishment. Through tears, they also told Slager they felt sorrow for him and the loss his young children would feel in his absence. In the end, U.S. District Judge David Norton ruled it second-degree murder, not manslaughter, and sentenced Slager to 20 years in prison for violating Scott’s civil rights.
For the Scott family, it was the justice they had sought ever since that stranger came to them with the video.
“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.”
Slager’s attorneys have continued to reiterate his self-defense claim, saying race didn’t play a role and Slager never had any “racial animus” toward minorities. But the officer in May pleaded guilty to federal civil rights violations, with prosecutors agreeing to drop state murder charges.
Slager apologized to the family, calling Scott’s mother and brothers by their names.
“With my actions that day, Walter Scott is no longer with his family, and I am responsible for that,” Slager said. Of their forgiveness, he added: “I am very grateful.”
Slager’s emotions stood in stark contrast to his stoic demeanor during his state murder trial when jurors deadlocked over a verdict. He has several weeks to appeal his federal sentence and will be housed at the Charleston County jail until assigned a federal prison.
When state jurors failed to reach a verdict, many observers were shocked and distressed, because the video seemed to some to be an open-and-shut case. Some despaired of ever seeing justice.
The shooting angered local African-Americans who have complained for years that North Charleston police harassed black people, pulling them over or questioning them unnecessarily. But after the shooting, the Scott family successfully pleaded for calm, asking everyone to let the justice system run its course.
If Slager had faced another state trial and been convicted of murder, he could have been sentenced to anywhere from 30 years to life in prison.
Convictions in officer shootings are uncommon in the U.S.; 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.
Stewart said he hopes Slager’s punishment will give officers around the country pause.
“Stop and think, or you could end up 20 years behind bars,” Stewart said. “People are watching, and people are starting to actually care.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.