Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys are haggling over an appropriate sentence for ex-police officer Michael Slager this week.
On April 4, 2015, Slager, then an officer with the North Charleston Police Department, shot an unarmed 50-year-old Walter Scott five times following a traffic stop for a broken brake light. Eyewitness video later showed Scott running away from Slager before he was killed.
In early May, Slager, 36, pled guilty to a federal civil rights violation charge in a plea bargain that allowed him to bypass a do-over of the 2016 state trial that ended in a hung jury.
Now, attorneys from the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and Andy Savage, Slager’s defense attorney, are trying their best to influence Slager’s punishment in what has virtually become a mini re-trial.
The sentencing hearing first convened at around 10 a.m. Monday morning. Slager appeared in a white and gray striped jail uniform.
Prosecutor Jared Fishman asked that Judge Norton consider the actions that led to this point.
“It is the government’s position that the killing of Walter Scott constitutes second degree murder,” Fishman said. “It was deliberate, calculated, not driven by emotion. That was evident by the two years of lies that followed the shooting.”
Defense attorney Andy Savage pointed to Slager’s training in the North Charleston Police Department during his arguments to Judge Norton in favor of a lower sentence.
“Michael was very compliant with the instructions of his department,” Savage said. “He often led with accomplishing the most stops. He received a reward for having the highest effective traffic stops.”
Savage showed dashboard camera footage of the traffic stop in an effort to show how Slager acted with “professionalism” before shooting Scott.
“Every ticket he wrote, every stop he made, had not the slightest indication of racial animus,” Savage said. “In fact, his stops in that area were disproportionately white people.”
Savage also asked the judge to consider Slager’s time served in solitary confinement and the conditions of the food in jail, claiming that Slager can sometimes only eat one meal a day in confinement because of his Celiac disease.
Witnesses called in by the prosecution include Feidin Santana, who recorded the eyewitness video that helped propel the case to national attention, and SLED Lt. Charles Ghent, who interviewed Slager about 72 hours after the shooting.
In that interview, Slager claimed that Scott successfully grabbed the officer’s stun gun and charged at him while holding it.
FBI video expert Anthony Imel was later called to the stand to discuss an enhanced video emphasizing the moment Slager dropped the stun gun next to Scott’s body.
“We can determine from the site that the Taser landed on the road (before the shooting),” Imel said. “It did not appear to go into the grass. It was on the road behind and to the left of Mr. Slager.”
“The planting of the taser next to Scott’s body, following his death, should be considered when looking at the obstruction of justice,” said Fishman, the prosecutor, earlier in his opening statement.
Savage argued that previous DNA testing showed that the majority of the DNA on the stun gun was Scott’s.
“We shouldn’t be deprived of justice because of the sloppiness of the governments investigation,” Savage said.
At one point during his testimony, Santana became snippy when Savage pressed him about what he did not see before he started filming.
“The beauty of me taking the video [is that] you can see,” Santana said.
Savage also questioned Santana on his hearing, his vision, his taxes, and his residency status in multiple attempts to discredit him as a witness. When asked about why he hadn’t filed taxes for multiple years after 2013, Santana quipped, “I’m taking that advice from you now.”
Federal prosecutors highlight that neither Santana nor Imel saw any evidence of Scott using violence against Slager. Prosecutors also showed that during the detailed re-enactment in front of Lt. Ghent three days after the shooting, Slager did not mention that Scott had gotten on top of him while they were both on the ground.
U.S. Attorney Beth Drake told reporters on Monday that she does not expect the hearings to go beyond three days. The civil rights charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. According to multiple sources, experts presume the actual sentence will be somewhere between five and 20 years.
In October 2015, North Charleston City Council unanimously approved a $6.5 million settlement with the family of Walter Scott.
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