CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) – A white former police officer who shot an unarmed black man to death after he fled a traffic stop never showed any racial animus toward people he encountered in the community, his attorney said in federal court on Monday.
Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty in May to violating Walter Scott’s civil rights by shooting the motorist without justification in April 2015.
Slager faces the possibility when he is sentenced, perhaps by the end of the week.
Despite his guilty plea, Slager has maintained all along that he and Scott got into an altercation after Scott ran from a routine traffic stop and the officer caught up with him in a nearby park.
Slager was arrested days after the incident when a cellphone video shot by a passerby emerged showing the officer shooting Scott in the back as the motorist again ran away from him.
Prosecutors have maintained since Slager’s arrest that the officer showed a callous disregard for Scott’s life and that the shooting was racially motivated.
But on Monday, defense attorney Andy Savage tried to refute that contention.
“There’s nothing in Michael Slager’s background, from birth to today, of any racial animus or any harassment of minority members of the community,” Savage said.
The attorney then played both the cellphone and dashcam video from Slager’s cruiser, noting the officer’s calm demeanor as he walked up to Scott’s car and asked to see the driver’s license and registration.
Slager pulled Scott over for a broken brake light. He claimed he shot the motorist in self-defense after Scott tried to grab his Taser.
The sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge David Norton is expected to last through Wednesday. Norton must decide whether he thinks the civil rights violation was voluntary manslaughter or murder.
Prosecutors are arguing that it is murder, making Slager eligible for a life sentence.
But Savage contends Slager, who has been held in solitary confinement since his guilty plea, deserves a far lesser sentence, in part because he has accepted responsibility for the shooting and also because of his family obligations and military service.
A pre-hearing report recommends Slager be sentenced to 10 to 13 years in prison.
Prior to entering his guilty plea in federal court Slager was tried for murder in state court. Those proceedings ended in a mistrial.
Among those testifying on Monday was Feide Santana, the passerby who shot the video of Scott’s final moments.
Santana said after realizing what he had witnessed, “I was very shocked. I was surprised it really happened. That was the first time I saw death in front of me. I just saw police shoot and kill a man. I was scared.”
He said because he didn’t want the video to “get in the wrong hands” he decided not to turn it over to a law enforcement agencies, and instead gave it to Scott’s family.
Savage claimed Santana did not witness the entire incident due to his view being blocked by some foliage and also criticized him for failing to pay income taxes one year.
“I’m here to comply with justice; the taxes are bad, yes. But I am not here on any side. I’m not here on the side of Walter Scott and I’m not here on the side of Michael Slager, I am here to be neutral and testify to what I saw,” Santana said.
Lt. Charles Ghent of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Decision, said when he interviewed Slager 72 hours after the shooting, the officer voluntarily gave a detailed statement on the shooting.
“He said he deployed the Taser and struck Scott in the back,” Lt. Ghent said. “He reloaded the Taser and was a little closer and struck him and he locked up and fell forward to the ground.
“He said Scott as Scott pushed himself up from the ground, he grabbed the Taser and attempted to pull it from [the officer’s hand],” Ghent said.
Testimony at the hearing was expected to continue throughout the afternoon.