COLUMBIA, S.C. — A judge upheld a 20-year prison sentence on Monday for former police officer Michael Slager in the killing of Walter Scott, a Black man who ran from a traffic stop in South Carolina, rejecting Slager’s claims his lawyer did a poor job.
Slager had appealed his sentence, saying his lawyer never told him about a plea offer from prosecutors that could have cut years off his eventual prison term for shooting Scott five times in the back.
But federal Judge Richard Gergel wrote in his ruling Monday that he believed Slager's lawyer Andy Savage, who said in 2017 court papers that he told his client about every plea offer. Slager testified during a hearing last week he didn't know about the initial deal from prosecutors.
Slager’s 20-year sentence was one of the longest in recent memory for a police officer for an on-duty killing.
Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge for shooting Scott, who was not armed, in the back five times on April 4, 2015. Slager had pulled over the 50-year-old Black motorist for a broken brake light when their confrontation was captured on a bystander’s cellphone video that later spread worldwide on social media.
In the encounter, the two could be seen tumbling to the ground after Slager hit Scott with a Taser. Authorities said their investigation found Scott got back up and was shot from a distance of about 15 feet as he ran from the officer.
The shooting itself was captured on video, something Slager didn't know when he initially told investigators that Scott had charged at him after stealing his Taser.
“At sentencing, Petitioner attempted to blame the victim. Now, he attempts to blame his defense counsel and the trial judge. But a careful review of this entire tragic episode makes plain that Petitioner has no one to blame for his present predicament and sentence but himself,” Gergel wrote.
Savage is one of South Carolina's most accomplished attorneys and at the time he was also representing a Black church member whose life was spared in a racist massacre that killed nine people in a Charleston church in 2015, two months after Slager's arrest.
Slager's new lawyers didn't question his guilt, just a sentence that according to federal prison records will keep him behind bars until 2033.
While Slager pleaded guilty to a civil rights offense, the length of his sentence depended on how federal judge David Norton interpreted the shooting. If it was voluntary manslaughter committed in the heat of passion, sentencing guidelines meant Slager might have faced as little as seven years.
But Norton ruled the shooting amounted to second-degree murder because Slager fired nine shots total and lied about Scott stealing his Taser.
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Savage said in court papers as part of Slager’s appeal that he did not tell the ex-officer about the potential plea deal offered eight months before because of a conversation he had with Norton during a private meeting about public funding for Slager’s defense where the judge said this “is not a murder case.”
Savage took it to believe Norton was going to rule it was a manslaughter case where the upper end of the sentencing guidelines were eight years in prison, nearly four years less than the lower end of the prosecution’s offer. He recommended Slager plead guilty without the deal.
Savage never asked Norton for clarity. In court papers in Slager’s appeal, Norton said he was discussing Slager’s state trial on murder charges which had already taken place and ended in a mistrial.
Savage testified during last week’s hearing that his promises in earlier court papers that he shared all plea deals with Slager in court documents filed before the final plea were true.
Slager’s state murder charge was dropped as part of the federal plea deal. He could have faced life in prison if convicted of that charge and his lawyers said Slager wanted to spend his prison time in federal custody where he felt he would be safer than in state prison.
Gergel praised Savage and his fellow lawyers in his ruling for being "zealous advocates" and said their work that led to a four-day sentencing hearing that cost nearly $100,000 in taxpayer money "far exceeded a minimally acceptable standard of performance and showed elements of originality and creativity in the face of a daunting set of facts."
In the end, even a great lawyer could not overcome the video of Slager shooting nine times at a running man's back and then lying about it, Gergel said.
“Attorneys are advocates, not magicians, and they could not make this damning evidence disappear,” Gergel wrote.