CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A white former police officer who shot an unarmed black man to death in the back as he fled a traffic stop never had any “racial animus” toward minorities in the community, his attorney said Monday.
The sentencing hearing for ex-officer Michael Slager opened up with his attorneys playing cellphone and dashcam video that showed the traffic stop and the shooting itself. Slager’s attorneys think the videos show him acting in a calm, professional demeanor leading up to the fatal shooting of Walter Scott. Prosecutors believe the videos depict the officer’s callous behavior.
Slager, 36, pleaded guilty in federal court in May to violating Scott’s civil rights by shooting Scott without justification. He faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced by a judge, perhaps as soon as this week. Federal sentencing officials have recommended between 10 to nearly 13 years in prison.
“There’s nothing in Michael Slager’s background, from birth to today, of any racial animus or any harassment of minority members of the community,” his attorney Andy Savage said, countering assertions that the officer acted violently because Scott was black.
Slager, a former North Charleston officer, pulled Scott over on April 4, 2015, for a broken brake light. He said he shot the 50-year-old black motorist in self-defense after Scott tried to grab his Taser.
The sentencing hearing could last several days. At the end of it, a judge will decide whether he thinks the civil rights violation was voluntary manslaughter or murder. Prosecutors think it’s murder, making Slager eligible for a life sentence. Defense attorneys say Slager, who has been in jail since May, deserves a far lesser sentence, in part because he has accepted responsibility for the shooting.
In the dashcam video, Slager is asking Scott questions about insurance and vehicle ownership. When Slager goes back to his patrol car, Scott opens the door and runs.
The men move out of view of the dashcam. The audio is muffled, but the officer can be heard yelling at Scott to get down on the ground.
In cellphone video of the shooting, Scott is shown getting about 17 feet (5 meters) from Slager before the officer fires at him eight times. Hit five times in the back, Scott crumples to the ground, falling facedown.
“Shots fired. Suspect down. He grabbed my Taser,” Slager is heard telling dispatchers.
Prosecutors’ first witness was the man who recorded the shooting on the way to his job at a barbershop. Feidin Santana testified that he never saw Scott grab Slager’s stun gun or charge at the officer.
Lt. Charles Ghent, a state police agent who interviewed Slager a few days after the shooting, testified that the officer never claimed that Scott had used his stun gun on him.
During his state trial last year, Slager testified that he feared for his life when Scott grabbed for his weapon and charged at him. Under questioning by Slager’s attorney, Ghent said Monday the stun gun was never tested for fingerprints and that there was no reason for Slager to re-holster the weapon rather than leave it on the ground where it fell.
Slager’s state trial ended when a panel of 11 white jurors and one black juror deadlocked last year after deliberations over four days.
While that case was ongoing, federal authorities pursued a parallel investigation against Slager on civil rights charges. The state murder charge was dropped as part of Slager’s federal plea deal.
On Monday, Savage repeated his criticism that the state and federal governments teamed up unfairly on his client.
“We shouldn’t be deprived of justice because of the sloppiness of the government’s investigation,” Savage said, calling into question DNA and stun gun examinations done by state police.
Members of the Scott family filled one side of the courtroom Monday. Last year, Scott’s relatives reached a $6.5 million settlement with the city of North Charleston.