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'This is historic': Feds indict Slager on civil rights violation in Walter Scott shooting

Attorney Chris Stewart discusses the federal indictment of Michael Slager after a court hearing Wednesday, May 11, 2016 in the shooting death of Walter Scott. (Sam Tyson/WCIV)

Federal prosecutors said in an arraignment hearing Wednesday afternoon that Attorney General Loretta Lynch would not be seeking the death penalty for Michael Slager in the shooting death of Walter Scott.

In the hearing, U.S. District Magistrate Bristow Marchant told Slager and prosecutors that based on the statute cited in the indictment, it was possible and it afforded Slager -- who was found indigent -- certain rights to counsel.

Slager, who appeared in court clean shaven and in a suit but still shackled at the wrists and ankles, said he wanted to retain his court-appointed attorney in his state murder case. That means Slager will have a familiar face in Andy Savage at the defendant's table as the federal case develops and more hearings are scheduled.

Federal prosecutors asked that the $500,000 bond set in state court be carried over to the federal court, which means Slager would remain out of jail and under house arrest unless he violates the terms of the parole. Prosecutors did ask for two additional measures for Slager's supervised release, however: the former officer has to wear a GPS monitoring device and surrender his passport.

During the hearing, Walter Scott's brother Anthony told Marchant that the family understood it was Slager's right to be released on bond, but said they were still "very troubled" by the events of the case.

"Our brother is gone; we can't bring him back," Anthony Scott said.

Interactive Timeline: The Walter Scott Case

After the hearing, the Scott family, flanked by attorneys Justin Bamberg and Chris Stewart, held a brief press conference outside the federal courthouse in downtown Charleston.

Stewart said the escalation of the case to the federal courts is a statement to police agencies that brutality has to end. Stewart said he was proud of the Justice Department for deciding to file charges against Slager.

"If you want to know what civil rights history looks like, take a look at today," Stewart said. "This is historic. This should not be taken lightly."

Bamberg said the federal government only gets involved in about 4 percent of police misconduct cases.

"Today is a happy day because Walter Scott and Michael Slager join that 4 percent," Bamberg said. "I have to commend the federal government for stepping in."

Quoting scripture, Bamberg said joy cometh in the morning: "Today is a little bit of joy for this country as a whole."

Anthony Scott said they might never have received justice had it not been for a bystander's video that shows Slager shooting at Scott as he was running away.

"We would not even be here today. We would not be getting justice today," Scott said.

Judy Scott, Walter's mother, called the day bittersweet. While she misses her son and cries over him every day, she thanked God "(her) son was used to pull the cover off all the violence and cover ups."

Slager faces a three-count indictment: one for the shooting, one for obstruction of a police investigation, and one for use of a weapon during a violent crime. The indictment alleges Slager "shot Walter Scott without legal justification, willfully depriving him of the right, secured and protected by the Constitution."

If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In state court where he faces the murder charge in the shooting, Slager could also be sentenced to life in prison.

SPECIAL SECTION: The Walter Scott Shooting

The decision to prosecute Slager federally was good news to Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who is prosecuting Slager's state trial.

"Simply put, the state and federal prosecutions vindicate separate interests and we both will work hard to find justice for Mr. Scott and Mr. Slager. While certainly the State charges address the killing of Mr. Scott, they do not directly address the alleged violation of Mr. Scott's civil rights by a government employee acting under color of law," she said in a statement after the hearing.

Savage called the federal indictment an "unprecedented step" and described the timing of the indictment as "very interesting."

"Needless to say, today's indictment is very concerning to Michael. However, he continues to remain grateful for the evidence that exists and at this point still has faith in our justice system and its processes. He 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 said in a statement.

Neither he nor his co-counsel on the federal case, Shaun Kent, were able to attend Wednesday's hearing because they were dealing with other unrelated cases in other courtrooms. Savage said while the federal case unfolds, they continued to prepare for the Oct. 31 state murder trial.

The federal charges against Slager could prove to be a second chance for a conviction against the former officer if the state murder charges do not lead to a conviction. Slager's attorney Andy Savage has spent the last year picking apart the handling of evidence by North Charleston police and the State Law Enforcement Division -- specifically trace evidence on the Slager's Taser and gun.

The case against Slager developed after cellphone video showed him shooting Scott in the back as the 50-year-old man ran from Slager during a North Charleston traffic stop.

Federal prosecutors say Slager told investigators Scott was coming at him with the Taser when he fired, but the video shows the opposite.

However, Slager's attorneys have argued that there is a piece of time between the loss of radio activity and the cellphone video that shows Scott on top of Slager during a physical struggle.

Click here for a full timeline of the case.

Most people have seen only an excerpt of the bystander video that shows Scott, 50, running from Slager as the former officer opens fire, hitting Scott in the back several times. Scott died at the scene.

In January, some eight months after his arrest, Slager was released on bond. While he was in jail, someone tried to set fire to his former home in Hanahan, which led to him being held in an undisclosed location as he prepares for the state murder trial.

Currently, his state trial is set for Oct. 31, but a date change in the Dylann Roof murder trial compelled prosecutors to ask for the trial to be moved up to August. Savage is fighting the date change. A federal trial date has not yet been set.

Last fall, North Charleston approved a $6.5 million civil settlement with Scott's family.


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