Michael T. Slager, the white police officer whose video-recorded killing of an unarmed black motorist in North Charleston, S.C., starkly illustrated the turmoil over racial bias in American policing, was sentenced on Thursday to 20 years in prison, after the judge in the case said he viewed the shooting as a murder.The sentence, which was within the range of federal guidelines, was pronounced in Federal District Court in Charleston about seven months after Mr. Slager pleaded guilty to violating the civil rights of Walter L. Scott when he shot and killed him in April 2015. The case against Mr. Slager is one of the few instances in which a police officer has been prosecuted for an on-duty shooting.
“We have to get this type of justice, because being a police officer is one of the most powerful jobs in the country, and it should be respected,” L. Chris Stewart, a lawyer for Mr. Scott’s family, said after the hearing, which was punctuated by tears and grief. “But that doesn’t mean you’re above the law. That doesn’t mean you can do as you please.”
Federal prosecutors had urged that Mr. Slager be sentenced to life in prison for a shooting that they contended amounted to second-degree murder. Mr. Slager’s defense lawyers, as well as the United States Probation Office, had recommended that the judge, David C. Norton, treat the shooting as akin to voluntary manslaughter.
On Thursday, the fourth day of the sentencing proceedings, Judge Norton said he had concluded that the killing should be considered murder for the purposes of determining Mr. Slager’s punishment. The shooting, he said, was “reckless, wanton and inappropriate.”
Although the judge’s sentence fell short of what prosecutors had sought, the fact that Mr. Slager was convicted of any crime at all made the case a milestone in the national debate about police conduct. Other killings by police officers, from Baltimore to Charlotte, N.C., and Ferguson, Mo., have prompted protests and some changes in police practice, but have not led to convictions.
“Officers who violate anyone’s rights also violate their oaths of honor, and they tarnish the names of the vast majority of officers, who do incredible work,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He added that the Justice Department would “hold accountable anyone who violates the civil rights of our fellow Americans.”
In court on Thursday, Mr. Slager expressed remorse.
“Walter Scott is no longer with his family, and I’m responsible for that,” he said. “I wish it never would have happened. I wish I could go back in time.” After the hearing, his lawyers declined to comment.
Mr. Slager, who has been jailed in Charleston County since he entered his guilty plea in early May, was a patrolman in North Charleston, the third-largest city in South Carolina, when he stopped Mr. Scott for a broken taillight in 2015. The traffic stop, on the Saturday before Easter, was mostly unremarkable until Mr. Scott got out of his car and began to run. Mr. Scott’s family believes that he fled because he feared being arrested over unpaid child support.
Mr. Slager gave chase and caught up with Mr. Scott, and according to the officer’s later testimony, the two men struggled over the officer’s Taser device. Mr. Slager said that he was in “total fear” because of the possibility that Mr. Scott might seize the Taser and use it against him.
“I see him with a Taser in his hand as I see him spinning around,” Mr. Slager, who was 33 at the time of the shooting, testified later about the skirmish with Mr. Scott, who was 50. “That’s the only thing I see: that Taser in his hand.”
But Mr. Scott soon broke away, unarmed, and began to run again. Mr. Slager raised his pistol, pointed it at Mr. Scott’s back, and fired eight shots. Mr. Scott, who was at least 17 feet from Mr. Slager when the officer opened fire, fell to the ground. Moments after the shooting, Mr. Slager approached Mr. Scott and dropped his Taser near him, an action that prosecutors believed was an attempt to plant evidence and skew the investigation.
A barber who was walking to work, Feidin Santana, recorded the shooting and its aftermath on his cellphone. Mr. Santana did not immediately come forward with his recording, and the authorities initially believed Mr. Slager’s account of the encounter with Mr. Scott. But Mr. Santana’s footage transformed the case.
Mr. Slager was swiftly fired and arrested, and the City of North Charleston, whose law enforcement practices came under substantial scrutiny, agreed to a $6.5 million settlement with Mr. Scott’s family. Mr. Slager was tried for murder in state court in 2016, but the jury deadlocked, unable to reach a unanimous agreement on whether he should be acquitted, convicted of murder or found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. A mistrial was declared.
Jurors signaled that they had come very close to convicting Mr. Slager of manslaughter, and defense lawyers worked out a plea agreement to settle all of the charges Mr. Slager faced in state and federal court.
But the plea agreement with the Justice Department left open a central issue — whether the killing of Mr. Scott had been tantamount to second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. More than semantics was at stake: The answer was crucial to calculating what is known as a guidelines range for sentencing in the federal courts. Until Thursday morning, it was not clear how Judge Norton would rule.
Prosecutors argued for murder because Mr. Slager “acknowledged he willfully used unreasonable force when he shot Walter Scott, even though Scott was unarmed and posed no threat.” They also said that the judge should increase Mr. Slager’s sentence because Mr. Slager had violated Mr. Scott’s civil rights under color of law and because he had “willfully obstructed justice.”
But a federal probation official, supported by Mr. Slager’s defense lawyers, recommended that the judge find the killing to be an act of voluntary manslaughter, which would generally call for a sentence of about 10 to 12½ years in prison. Citing a range of factors, including Mr. Scott’s behavior and the risk of prison abuse against Mr. Slager, the defense lawyers also argued that the judge should vary from the guidelines and impose a more lenient sentence than that.
The shooting, they said, was a “heat of passion” moment brought on by provocations by Mr. Scott and “fear experienced by Slager.” They complained about the Justice Department’s request for a life sentence and said, “They justify their advocacy with a disingenuous interpretation of the law and a false narrative of facts.”
It was a familiar theme for Mr. Slager’s defenders, who conceded his guilt but argued for more than two years that Mr. Slager was a good police officer who was prosecuted only because the politics of the moment demanded it. On Thursday, Judge Norton signaled that he agreed with little of the defense’s case.
There were moments during the hearing when legal debates receded. In one of them, Mr. Scott’s mother, Judy Scott, looked directly at Mr. Slager during her testimony.
“I forgive you, and I pray for you that you will repent and let Jesus come into your life,” Ms. Scott told the officer who killed her son. “Just as you are, he will forgive you.”
Mr. Slager nodded and mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” Mrs. Scott answered softly.