(CN) – The Fourth Circuit rejected Tuesday a white former South Carolina police officer’s appeal of his 20-year sentence for the 2015 shooting death of a fleeing black motorist.
Former North Charleston officer Michael Slager was sentenced by a federal judge in December 2017 to 20 years in prison for second-degree murder and obstruction of justice. He had also previously pleaded guilty to violating the civil rights of Walter Scott, an unarmed black motorist Slager shot fives times after the man ran from a routine traffic stop in April 2015.
Writing for a three-judge panel Tuesday, U.S. Circuit Judge James Wynn Jr. found the federal judge overseeing the case properly used second-degree murder instead of voluntary manslaughter as the sentencing cross-reference for the deprivation of civil rights charge.
Slager’s attorney Elizabeth Franklin-Best had argued on appeal that Scott provoked her client and the former officer acted in self-defense, but the Fourth Circuit rejected that argument.
Because there was no “heat of passion” at the time of the shooting, the district court properly found that Slager had “malice aforethought,” according to the 24-page ruling.
“Defendant’s alleged mutual combat with Scott did not provide defendant with adequate provocation because Scott was running away when defendant shot him,” Wynn wrote. “Perhaps most importantly, even though defendant now claims he was provoked, defendant testified at his state proceedings that he was neither ‘provoked’ nor ‘angry’ during his altercation but was merely acting in ‘self-defense.’ Defendant cannot negate his malice through ‘sudden quarrel or heat of passion’ when he previously testified he was neither ‘provoked’ nor ‘angry.’”
The shooting happened after a traffic stop initiated when Slager pulled Scott over for having a brake light out.
According to court records, Slager made false statements during the investigation that were clearly contradicted by a video of the incident that a passerby captured with a cellphone.
He gave four different accounts of the shooting, including initial statements to South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agents; the testimony he gave during a state murder trial, which ended in a hung jury before the federal trial; statements made in the federal case’s pretrial hearings; and his final account in his guilty plea. South Carolina prosecutors agreed to dismiss the state murder charge after Slager was convicted in the federal case.
The Fourth Circuit found that the presiding federal judge properly applied a sentencing enhancement to Slager on the grounds of obstruction of justice due to his “evolving” and “self-serving” statements, the ruling states.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement that justice has been served.
“Officers rarely receive any prison sentence at all for their crimes, and while Officer Slager is receiving what some may see as a strong sentence, we know that no punishment can repair the hole left in the lives of [Scott’s] loved ones,” she said.