CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Two things stand out about this week’s indictment of a white former South Carolina police officer on federal civil rights charges in the death of unarmed black motorist Walter Scott: Such charges from the feds against an officer are relatively rare, and they send a message.
Michael Slager, 34, already faces state murder charges in Scott’s death.
Some, including attorneys for Scott’s family, see the new indictment as a message from federal prosecutors that they’ve got their eye on law officers and are fed up with flagrant violence.
“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 former federal prosecutor offered a similar take.
“Typically, these cases get tried in state court,” said Pete Strom, a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina now in private practice. “The Department of Justice is interested in making this an impact case and sending a message to law enforcement that you can’t shoot somebody in the back.”
Slager’s lawyer, Andy Savage, meanwhile, questioned the timing of the federal charges, called the penalties extreme and suggested the federal case is seeking to make amends for history.
“It really feels as if Officer Slager is carrying the burden of many past cases that were handled differently,” Savage said in a release.
Slager was arraigned Wednesday on federal charges that include depriving Scott of his civil rights. The federal indictment also charges Slager with obstruction of justice and unlawful use of a weapon during the commission of a crime in Scott’s death.
A bystander’s cellphone video captured images of Slager, then a North Charleston police officer, firing eight times as Scott, 50, ran from an April 2015 traffic stop. The case inflamed a national debate about how blacks are treated by white police officers.
The federal indictment says 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 the encounter, “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.”
It’s uncommon for the Justice Department to bring federal civil rights charges against police officers in deadly shootings. Such cases require them to prove an officer willfully violated the victim’s civil rights by knowingly using more force than the law allows.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported this year that federal prosecutors have declined to pursue civil rights allegations against law enforcement officers 96 percent of the time since 1995, with most experts blaming the low prosecution rate on the difficulty of winning such cases.
The 12,703 potential civil rights violations turned down nationwide from 1995-2015 include high-profile incidents in Chicago, New York and Ferguson, Missouri, but also thousands of lesser-known incidents.
In this instance, Strom said the federal prosecution may be sending a powerful message about how police violence is to be handled across the nation, given the public fervor such cases has created.
“If you try him in state court in South Carolina, that’s not a national story that will ring loudly in every police department in the country,” said Strom, whose father was a longtime chief of South Carolina’s state police force. “If he is indicted by the Justice Department and convicted, that’s going to send a much louder message nationwide.”
There’s also a unique complication to Slager’s state case. The chief prosecutor in the Charleston area is also heading up the death penalty case against Dylann Roof, the white man charged with gunning down nine people during Bible study at a historic black church last summer. The state’s Supreme Court has said Scarlett Wilson can prioritize that case over any other, and it’s been delayed until January.
Slager’s state case is set to go to trial this fall, although Wilson has asked that it be moved up or delayed until after Roof’s is over.
Maximum penalties for Slager in both state and federal cases are the same: life in prison.
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.
Kinnard reported from Columbia, South Carolina.
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