CHARLESTON, S.C. – A year ago, former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager sat in a Charleston County courtroom, hearing a judge declare a mistrial in the state murder case against him in the shooting death of an unarmed black motorist. Relief washed over his wife, who through tears thanked attorneys for their work toward ensuring her husband would be at home with their family for the holidays.
This week, just across the street, Slager sits in a federal courtroom, where a judge is considering how much time the former North Charleston patrol officer will spend in federal prison for the shooting. His wife is there, too, but this time she looks on as Slager sits, shackled and handcuffed, wearing a prison-issue striped jumpsuit, instead of the slacks and button-down shirt he wore for his state trial.
Slager, 36, pleaded guilty in federal court in May to violating Scott's civil rights by shooting Walter Scott without justification on April 4, 2015. Slager had pulled Scott over for a broken brake light, and the 50-year-old Scott ran during the stop. After deploying his stun gun, Slager fired eight bullets at Scott as he ran away, hitting him five times in the back.
Slager, swiftly fired from the department, no longer faces the state murder charge. That case was dropped as part of his federal plea deal. This week, federal prosecutors and Slager's attorneys are putting up their cases as to what his sentence should be. Unlike his state trial, it's taking place only before a judge, with no jury.
On Tuesday, more differences between the two state and federal cases became clear. The judge allowed expert witnesses to testify about disputed audio and video recordings of the shooting. Grant Fredericks, a forensic video expert, testified that his analysis showed Slager fought with Scott before their fatal encounter and the ex-officer said: "Let go of my Taser before I shoot you."
The defense team believes that evidence bolsters Slager's contention that Scott was aggressive and that the officer shot him in self-defense. A microphone on Slager's uniform also picked up Scott saying, "F–k the police" after Slager asked him to get on the ground, Fredericks testified.
Prosecutors counter that there is no way to definitively tell what is being said on the recordings, and they have used their own experts to show how Slager fired at Scott as he was running away, nowhere near the officer's stun gun.
U.S. District Judge David Norton has had the entire state case file for months, nullifying any need for attorneys to re-present much evidence and testimony. Defense attorneys and prosecutors gave opening statements, including brief overviews of the facts of the case, but didn't labor over explaining nuances in the law that would be necessary in a jury trial. At the end of testimony, they're expected to give equally succinct closing arguments.
Slager faces up to life in prison, although federal sentencing officials have recommended 10 to nearly 13 years. Slager's attorneys are asking for less than that.
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