What Did Michael Slager Plead Guilty To?

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On Tuesday, after an initial trial that ended with a deadlocked jury, the attorney for former police officer Michael Slager announced he'll plead guilty for Walter Scott's fatal shooting in 2015. Slager, 35, was captured on video firing the shots at Scott, an unarmed 50-year-old black man in South Carolina, as he was fleeing in a slow jog. Slager narrowly escaped a murder conviction last year when a lone juror held out and forced a mistrial.

As for the charge he is pleading guilty to, it's not murder. Rather, as CNN details, it's a federal charge for excessive use of force ― far below the severity of a murder charge, but one that nonetheless carries up to a life sentence. Slager's killing of Scott became a flashpoint in the ongoing series of protests against police violence and racial injustice that surged in the last few years, starting with the killing of Ferguson, Missouri teenager Michael Brown in 2014.

Convictions of police officers for on-duty killings are fleetingly rare, so in that respect, this plea deal represents a victory for the prosecution, as well as for the massive groundswell of activists who drew attention to Scott's death at Slager's hands. That said, the fact that an outright murder conviction eluded the prosecution, even with video evidence plainly showing Slager shooting Scott in the back, will leave a grim memory for many.

According to The Washington Post, the plea agreement will resolve both the state and federal charges against Slager, meaning the legal battle part of his story is over, and the punishment part will soon begin. He has not yet been sentenced, however, and the question of how long a judge decides Slager should stay behind bars for killing Scott will surely be the next major development in this story.

It's fair to conclude that any sentence that's perceived as lenient ― especially considering the incredible damning nature of the video of him killing Scott ― will have be controversial, fueling criticism and scrutiny of the criminal justice system's attitude towards police officers who kill unarmed black people. According to The Post and Courier, the sentencing will take place at a separate hearing at some point over the next several weeks. The plea agreement means the sentence won't be left up to a jury to decide, but will instead be solely at the discretion of the judge ― anywhere from no prison time to the rest of his life behind bars.