Ex-Police Officer Who Killed Black Motorist During Traffic Stop Appeals Conviction to Supreme Court

May 8, 2019 by Dan McCue

A former North Charleston, South Carolina police officer who is serving a 20-year prison sentence for killing a black motorist who fled a traffic stop four years ago, has appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Michael Slager pleaded guilty in May 2017 to a federal civil rights violation for using excessive force when he shot a fleeing Walter Scott multiple times in the back as the motorist ran away from him in a small community park.

Slager’s plea was part of a deal in which prosecutors agreed to drop a separate state murder charge. His initial state murder trial, in 2016, ended in a mistrial.

In December 2017, U.S. District Judge David Norton sentenced the former police officer to 20 years in prison. The sentence was upheld by the Fourth Circuit in January 2019, and the appeals court denied Slager a rehearing a month later.

In a petition filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on April 29, Slager’s defense argued the former officer was denied his due process rights when he was sentenced for second-degree murder instead of voluntary manslaughter.

The Slager case made national headlines coming at a time when several black men were killed in a series of controversial officer-involved shootings.

Immediately after the April 4, 2015 incident, Slager claimed he pulled Scott over for a broken tail light and that the two had a physical altercation in a nearby park. Slager said during the fight Scott got hold of his Taser, and that he only fired on the motorist because he feared for his life.

The dashcam video shot from officer’s vehicle only showed Scott exiting his vehicle and running away.

Days later, however, a cell phone video shot by a passerby, Feidin Santana, contradicted a critical element of Slager’s story. The video captured by Santana showed Slager and Scott struggling, as the officer claimed, but it then shows Scott again taking off on foot.

In its most chilling sequence, Slager is seen firing eight shots at Scott, who was by then several feet away. Five of the shots hit the fleeing man in the back.

The shooting and the video both bound the community together and touched a raw nerve.

Then, two months after the killing of Walter Scott, a young white Supremacist, Dylann Roof, walked into a bible study class at the historically black Emanuel AME Church and gunned down nine parishioners.

Both the Slager and Roof cases were heard at the federal courthouse in Charleston, one trial seeming to begin the moment another ended. While Slager was sentenced to prison, Roof was ultimately sentenced to death and is currently awaiting his execution.

In his petition to the Supreme Court, Slager argues the district court judge “clearly erred” when it fully credited Santana’s testimony without considering the young man’s distance from events as they unfolded.

Slager’s attorneys insist that at least some of Santana’s testimony was purely speculative in nature, and that in at least one case, was “concededly erroneous.”

The petition also says the court erred in discounting Slager’s testimony on the grounds that his account of the shooting had “evolved” over time. The ex-officer maintains that in all of his legal proceedings, his account stayed the same.

Lastly, Slager’s attorneys contend the court erred in discounting the findings of three expert witnesses who concluded the altercation between Slager and Scott was more violent than it appeared in the Santana video.

At trial, Slager’s attorneys contended the two men wrestled on the ground for a time, and that Santana didn’t arrive on the scene until they’d both gotten back to their feet. The expert witnesses corroborated that account.

Slager is currently incarcerated in federal prison in Colorado and is expected to be released in 2034.

The Supreme Court has not indicated if and when it will consider hearing the case.

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