Guest Editorial: Justice served in wrongful killing of fleeing suspect

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Justice was not swift, but it has been served.

On Dec. 8, U.S. District Judge David Norton sentenced former North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager to 20 years in prison for the shooting death of Walter Scott, bringing to an end a painful chapter in the city’s history.

Mr. Norton’s decision came on the third day of testimony in a sentencing hearing after Mr. Slager pled guilty in May to federal civil rights charges. Mr. Slager shot Mr. Scott in the back five times in April 2015 as Mr. Scott was running away from police following a routine traffic stop.

Judge Norton had a wide range of sentencing options: Mr. Slager could have received a life sentence or he could have been set free.

It is frustrating that the case could not have been resolved in a state trial, which ended with a hung jury in December. Consequently, Mr. Slager, who is white, was sentenced under a federal civil rights violation of using excessive force to deprive Mr. Scott, a black man, of his rights under the law.

The underlying charge was second-degree murder, according to Judge Norton. The federal prison system does not have parole, meaning that Mr. Slager will have to serve his entire term, barring a successful appeal.

Mr. Slager’s guilty plea and his sentence mark milestones in the ongoing effort to bring greater accountability to police departments and address racial disparities in policing both here in the Lowcountry and nationwide.

It is a particularly critical moment for North Charleston.

The city still struggles with violence — this year has been its deadliest on record — and a strong and effective police department is as important as ever. But the work of keeping North Charleston residents safe will rightly proceed with supportive oversight from citizens who have stepped up to serve on a police review board.

Ever since cellphone video evidence surfaced revealing that Mr. Slager shot Mr. Scott in the back as he was fleeing, the North Charleston Police Department and city officials, including Mayor Keith Summey, acted commendably in condemning Mr. Slager’s actions and working to improve the city’s law enforcement.

The city’s swift and decisive action helped prevent the kind of unrest that has harmed other communities like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore. North Charleston set an example that other cities dealing with officer-involved shootings would be wise to follow.

But most importantly, Mr. Slager’s sentencing offers a chance for the Scott family and the North Charleston community as a whole to finally find closure after more than two years of heartbreak and waiting.

“He will never see me play high school football, never see me graduate,” said Miles Scott, Mr. Scott’s youngest son, during the hearing. “My heart is destroyed because the way my father went was wrong.”

Mr. Scott’s mother, Judy, also recounted her painful final conversation with Mr. Scott over the phone at the beginning of his encounter with the police. She forgave Mr. Slager. So did Mr. Scott’s brother, Anthony.

Moving on after the loss of a loved one and neighbor is not easy, particularly under such tragic circumstances. And Mr. Slager’s years in prison will not undo the pain he has caused.

But Mr. Scott’s family and friends, along with the rest of the Charleston area, can go forward in recognition that, finally, justice has been served.