Not guilty, pleaded former North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager, hours after a grand jury indicted him Wednesday on federal charges in last year’s shooting death of Walter Scott.
Clean-shaven and wearing a gray suit and blue tie, Slager spoke only when addressed during the brief hearing, mostly saying, “Yes, your honor” and “Yes, sir,” to U.S. Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant.
The federal grand jury’s indictment charged Slager with deprivation of rights under the color of the law, use of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime and obstruction of justice.
The deprivation of rights charge is a death penalty offense, but the federal prosecutor’s office has no interest in pursuing it, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Klumb said.
However, the death penalty designation allowed Slager to declare indigence, making him eligible for a court-appointed attorney. Those attorneys will be Andy Savage and Shaun Kent. Savage has already been representing Slager.
Slager, who is white, already faces a state murder charge after being caught on video shooting Scott, a 50-year-old African-American father of four, in the back following a traffic stop.
He fired eight times, hitting the unarmed Scott with five of those bullets.
The deprivation of rights charge returned Wednesday alleges that Slager violated Scott’s right to be free of unreasonable force, while the weapon charge says simply that Slager employed a .45-caliber Glock in depriving Scott of his rights.
The obstruction charge alleges that the former officer misled a South Carolina Law Enforcement Division investigator by saying he shot Scott while Scott was moving toward him with the officer’s Taser.
The intent of this allegedly false statement was to “hinder, delay and prevent the communication to a federal enforcement officer and federal judge of truthful information,” the indictment says.
A statement from the U.S. Justice Department says that Slager killed Scott “without legal justification.” If Slager is convicted of the deprivation of rights charge, a federal civil rights offense, he could face a penalty of life in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. The other charges each carry maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and $250,000 fines.
The 34-year-old ex-officer has been under house arrest since January after a judge released him on $500,000 bail. Marchant agreed to let that bail cover the federal charges, too, but added provisions that Slager must relinquish his passport and be monitored via GPS.
The Scott family had an opportunity to speak against the bail, and while Scott’s brother addressed the court, he did not say he opposed Slager being granted bail. After the hearing, Scott family attorney L. Christ Stewart said of Slager, “He’s not going to escape justice.”
Slager’s trial date on the state charges in North Charleston was set for October 31.
‘He was never a violent person’
Stewart said before Slager’s hearing, “This is history in so many ways. This never happens.”
Citing numerous cases in which the federal government declined to take action, including the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, he said Scott’s family was hopeful that their loved one’s case was a watershed.
“If this can be the turning point, where the Justice Department is going to step in and help these families, then this is a great day,” Stewart said. “Whoever had input in making that call, I’m really proud of our government right now.”
Asked how Scott’s parents, Walter Sr. and Judy, reacted, Stewart said they were thankful but stoic at first.
Once Stewart explained the gravity of the decision and “its ramifications on future Walter Scotts … (Judy) just wanted to pray and said, ‘Thank, God.’ “
“I pray that other mothers don’t have to go through what I’ve been going through,” Judy Scott told reporters after Slager’s hearing. “I loved (Walter) very much. He was never a violent person.”
The federal indictment marks the final piece of the puzzle for Stewart, he said. Slager was charged with murder shortly after the shooting. The police department then fired him, and a grand jury indicted him on the murder charge.
The South Carolina Legislature passed a bill mandating the use of body cameras in June. In October, the North Charleston City Council agreed to a $6.5 million settlement with Scott’s family. And now, a federal indictment.
“Every step along the devastating story of Walter Scott has been history,” Stewart said.
‘He took my Taser’
Following the April 4, 2015, shooting death of Scott, it was a matter of days before Slager’s superiors in the North Charleston Police Department charged the officer with murder.
Dashcam video from the traffic stop shows the two men talking before Scott gets out of the car and runs. Slager gives chase, and the two run out of range of the dashcam.
A scuffle ensued roughly 200 yards from the traffic stop, said Savage, Slager’s attorney. The end of that scuffle – the moments before Scott fatefully fled Slager – was caught on video by passerby Feidin Santana.
“At no time did Slager express anger. At the time (Scott) was shot, he was a felon who had just physically assaulted a police officer and taken possession of his Taser,” Savage said. “The officer never had a chance to pat him down for weapons, nor did he know the whereabouts of the passenger in the vehicle Scott was operating without a registration or insurance. Scott ran from a very minor traffic stop, and Slager had no knowledge why.”
Santana captured what happened next on his mobile phone: Scott took off running and Slager assumed a shooting stance and opened fire.
Before Slager fired, a dark object fell behind him to the ground. It’s not clear whether it was a Taser. Later in the video, Slager approaches Scott’s body and drops an indiscernible dark object next to him.
“Shots fired and the subject is down,” Slager said after the shooting, according to police reports. “He took my Taser.”
According to a South Carolina Law Enforcement Division DNA analysis, investigators took three swabs from Slager’s Taser. One swab contained no DNA, another only a partial DNA profile. The third contained a mixture of DNA, “and Walter Scott and Michael Slager cannot be excluded as possible contributors to this mixture,” the analysis report said.
Santana’s graphic footage sparked outrage and reignited a national conversation around race and policing.
Slager told investigators Scott did not comply with his demands and tried to grab his stun gun. The cell phone video shows what appeared to be a quick scuffle. He also said through his attorney that he followed all protocols and procedures.
Chief, mayor distance selves
The video, first obtained by The New York Times, told North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey all he needed to know, he said.
“I can tell you that as the result of that video and the bad decision made by our officer, he will be charged with murder,” Summey told reporters. “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And if you make a bad decision – don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street – you have to live by that decision.”
Police Chief Eddie Driggers told CNN at first he wanted to give Slager the benefit of the doubt.
“I want to believe in my heart of hearts that it was a tragic set of events after a traffic stop,” Driggers said. “I always look for the good in folks, and so I would hope that nobody would ever do something like that.”
Later, Driggers would tell reporters, “I was sickened by what I saw.”
In a statement Wednesday, Savage said Slager “believes that when all the facts can be presented in their complete form, the truth will be heard and at that time many can begin to heal.”
Savage has raised concerns about police staffing on the day of Scott’s shooting. His client’s patrol team had only three of its seven officers on duty that morning, and the team sergeant was working a part-time job outside the jurisdiction for extra pay, the defense attorney said.
“A quicker response time from other officers would have prevented the entire incident,” Savage said.
CNN’s John Murgatroyd, Martin Savidge, Tristan Smith and Shawn Nottingham contributed to this report.