A federal judge has upheld the 20-year prison sentence of Michael Slager, a former North Charleston police officer, who in 2015 fatally shot an unarmed Black man who was running away from him. i
The decisive factor in upholding Slager’s sentence was “the shooting of a fleeing and unarmed man five times in the back when he posed no possible threat to the safety of (Slager),” Judge Richard Gergel wrote in a 17-page decision issued late Monday afternoon.
Gergel’s decision, published on federal court dockets, was the latest event in a years-long series of high-profile court actions involving the killing of Walter Scott, who was Black, and Slager, who is white.
On April 4, 2015, Slager had pulled over Scott for a minor traffic violation in North Charleston, when Scott jumped out of his car and ran away into a vacant lot.
There, Slager shot Scott several times, a shooting that was caught on a bystander’s cell phone video and that went viral around the world within days.
The case gained even more attention because Slager initially told investigators that Scott had attacked him and that he killed the 50-year-old man in self-defense.
But the video showed a version of events that sharply conflicted with Slager’s accounting of the events. State officials charged Slager with murder.
Slager’s bid to overturn his sentence and have a new hearing was based on his claim that his trial attorney, Charleston lawyer Andy Savage, had provided incompetent representation.
But Judge Gergel wrote that he found no evidence that Slager’s attorney failed to show that Savage’s “performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and failed to show that any such alleged deficient performance resulted in prejudice to him.”
Gergel’s decision came six days after a two-day hearing ended last week in Charleston during which Slager’s new attorney, Christopher Geel, presented evidence asserting that Savage had done an inadequate job representing Slager.
A state trial in 2016 resulted in a hung jury on the murder charge. Slager then agreed to a plea bargain with federal law enforcement officials where he would plead guilty to a civil rights violation of excessive force resulting in Scott’s death.
Part of the deal was that Slager agreed to let U.S. District Judge David Norton set the sentence after a sentencing hearing. Another part of the deal was that all state charges would be dropped.
After a four-day hearing in December 2017 before Norton, Norton framed the case as one involving Scott’s murder and gave Slager 20 years — a sentence that stunned the ex-officer’s legal team but one that was widely praised by many community groups and civil rights advocates.
It is rare for police to get stiff prison sentences for incidents involving death to civilians. Norton could have given Slager life in prison. Savage and the legal team were hoping for a sentence of five to 10 years.
Although Gergel issued no ruling from the bench last week, he clearly was not impressed by the argument that Savage had failed to represent his client.
“Calling Mr. (Andy) Savage ineffective is ridiculous,” Gergel told Geel at the end of a two-day hearing, referring to Slager’s depiction of his lawyer.
Gergel noted that Savage is widely considered to be one of the state’s finest lawyers.
Government lawyers Brook Andrews and Rose Gibson didn’t present witnesses but made their points through cross-examination of Savage and other Slager witnesses.
This story will be updated.