Michael Slager And The Death Penalty

A federal grand jury indicted former Charleston police officer Michael Slager this week on charges of deprivation of civil rights, using a firearm in a violent crime, and obstruction of justice in connection with the shooting death of Walter Scott last year. The case, which sparked national outrage after a video surfaced of Slager shooting Scott in the back as he tried to run away, is already being tried as a murder under the South Carolina legal system. Now that federal charges have complicated the matter, there are rumblings that Slager could get the death penalty, should he be convicted. However, this seems extremely unlikely for several reasons.

The federal charges have nothing to do with whether or not Slager will get the death penalty. Because murder is technically considered a state-level crime (except under a few special circumstances, none of which apply to Slager), the federal charges have no impact on the state's pending murder charges. The federal charges seem to be more of a push for civil protections of everyday citizens against police officers than a strict matter of crime and punishment. The death penalty would be a big leap for the federal government to take in this case, and there's really no legal standing for it, so it is almost certainly not going to happen.

Furthermore, there are three compelling reasons Slager more than likely won't get the death penalty at the state level, either. First, South Carolina is among the more cautious states when it comes to executions — only 43 people have been executed there in the last 30 years. It might seem like a lot, but when compared to Texas, the state with the highest number of executions (with 537 in that period), it's clear that South Carolina is hesitant to use the death penalty. Second, Slager was a cop, and no matter what he did, the loyalty to police runs deep in many communities. In fact, killing a police officer or one of their family members is one of the quickest ways to earn the death penalty, which just goes to show how venerated police officers are in American society. Finally, under the letter of the state law, Slager didn't commit any of the offenses that would qualify him for the death penalty. There have to be corroborating factors that prove the death penalty is warranted, and none of them are present in this case.

Slager's state murder charges are still pending ahead of trial, which is set for October 31. The federal charges should not have any impact on the state charges, but the totality of the legal action against him is certainly damning. Slager's federal trial likely won't start until the summer of 2017, so it will take some time before the case is fully resolved, but its impact is already being felt in communities across the country.