CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The video was viewed millions of times around the world. It was blurry, frenzied and chilling: an unarmed black man ran from a white officer, who shot him five times in the back. (VIDEO CAN BE SEEN A THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE)
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 painful images helped bring them solace they can embrace: 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, told reporters Thursday. “You can’t believe the initial narrative. Investigate.”
The officer’s first story, the one Stewart and Scott’s family have disputed since the April 4, 2015, shooting, was Slager’s claim of self-defense. The then-North Charleston officer said he felt afraid and threatened when Scott grabbed his stun gun and charged at him with it.
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 he shared it with the Scott family. When they released the images publicly, people could see the shooting for 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 does show Slager shoot Scott, run to retrieve his stun gun, then drop it by the man’s lifeless body.
The images set off protests across the U.S. as demonstrators said it was another egregious example of police officers mistreating African-Americans. The video was seized on by many as vivid proof of what they had been arguing for years: that white officers too often use deadly force unnecessarily against black people.
Slager, 36, is one of only a few police officers to go to prison for a fatal shooting, and his sentence is by far the stiffest since the shootings came under extra scrutiny in recent years. He fired eight shots at Scott, hitting him five times in the back as the man fled from a traffic stop.
Before sentencing, Scott’s relatives urged a judge to mete out a significant punishment. Through tears, Scott’s family told Slager they felt sorrow for him and the loss his young children would feel in his absence. In the end, a judge ruled the shooting had been a murder and sentenced Slager to 20 years in prison for violating Scott’s civil rights, giving the Scott family 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 in the shooting 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 Scott 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 for that.”
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 he’s assigned to a federal prison.
When the jury failed to reach a verdict in the state murder case, many black people and others 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 complained for years that North Charleston police harassed black people, pulling them over or questioning them unnecessarily as they cracked down on crime. 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 police officer shootings are uncommon in the U.S., and 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.
After the sentencing, Stewart said he hoped the stiff punishment would 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.”
By MEG KINNARD
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