CHARLESTON, S.C. — As federal charges were filed against a white former South Carolina police officer who already faced a state murder charge in the shooting death of unarmed black motorist Walter Scott, Scott’s lawyer and family praised the federal prosecutors for pressing the case.
“I think the Justice Department is tired of sitting on the sidelines and they think this is one they can definitely win and send a message to police departments around the country,” attorney Chris Stewart told The Associated Press.
A federal indictment unsealed Wednesday charges Michael Slager, 34, with depriving Scott of his civil rights.
During a hearing Wednesday, federal Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant agreed that Slager could remain free on the bond he has already posted in state court.
The federal indictment unsealed a few hours earlier also charges Slager with obstruction of justice and unlawful use of a weapon during the commission of a crime in the death of Scott, 50.
Slager, who wore a dark suit and was handcuffed, entered a not-guilty plea during the brief hearing. Although he doesn’t have to put up any additional bond on the federal charges, Slager must surrender his passport and have GPS monitoring.
A bystander’s cellphone video captured images of Slager, then a North Charleston police officer, firing eight times as Scott ran from a traffic stop in April 2015. The case inflamed a national debate about how blacks are treated by white police officers.
The federal indictment charges that Slager, while acting as a law officer, deprived Scott of his civil rights. A second count says he used a weapon, a Glock Model 21 .45-caliber pistol, while doing so.
The third count, charging obstruction of justice, alleges that Slager intentionally misled state investigators about what happened during the encounter with Scott.
“Specifically, defendant Michael Slager knowingly misled . . . investigators by falsely stating that he fired his weapon at Scott while Scott was coming forward at him with a Taser,” the indictment reads. “In truth and in fact, as defendant Michael Slager then well knew, he repeatedly fired his weapon at Scott when Scott was running away from him.”
Conviction on all the charges could net Slager a life sentence plus 30 years and a $750,000 fine. The civil rights charge can carry the death penalty, because Scott lost his life, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Klumb said the government is seeking a maximum of life because there are no aggravating circumstances in the case.
Stewart, who represents the Scott family, called it amazing that the federal government has decided to indict an officer.
Later, he told reporters outside the courthouse that he was proud of the Justice Department’s decision.
“This is a message — not to the good officers who protect us every day, but to the ones who abuse people in this country,” he said.
Slager’s lawyer in the state case couldn’t make it to Wednesday’s hearing. But he issued a statement questioning the timing of the federal charges and calling the penalties extreme.
“It really feels as if Officer Slager is carrying the burden of many past cases that were handled differently,” said attorney Andy Savage, who was assigned during the hearing to represent Slager in the federal case too.
Scott’s mother Judy Scott said she thanks God for justice.
“I’m happy for that, but I’m sad because my son is gone. I’ll never see him again. But I pray that other mothers don’t have to go through what I’ve been going through,” she said.
Slager, who was fired from the police force after the incident, was held in solitary confinement until January, when he was released on half a million dollars bail and put under house arrest. He is at an undisclosed location, allowed to leave only for work, church and medical or legal appointments.
Slager’s state trial is set to begin this fall, and he faces a possible life sentence without parole.
Prosecutors have asked for the trial to be moved up to August or back to May 2017 to give Solicitor Scarlett Wilson time to prepare for another trial, that of Dylann Roof, who is charged with shooting nine people to death at a black church in Charleston last summer.
Roof’s trial is now set for January, and the state Supreme Court has issued an order protecting Wilson from trying other cases before that one.
Last fall, North Charleston approved a $6.5 million civil settlement with Scott’s family.
Kinnard reported from Columbia, South Carolina.