The former South Carolina police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott as he fled a traffic stop last year was indicted by a federal grand jury that charged him with a civil rights violation.
In the indictment filed Tuesday, the grand jury accuses Michael Slager, a former North Charleston police officer, of depriving Scott of his rights under color of law. The grand jury said that when Slager shot Scott “without legal justification,” he took away his constitutional right “to be free from the use of unreasonable force by a law enforcement officer.”
Slager is also charged with obstruction of justice, with the grand jury saying that he knowingly misled state investigators by telling them that that Scott was approaching him with a Taser, and with one count of using a weapon during “a felony crime of violence.”Scott was unarmed when Slager shot him.
It was not immediately clear who would be representing Slager in this case.
Scott’s death was one of several high-profile incidents last year that fueled a debate over how police use lethal force, as video footage of the shooting was widely seen on cable news and social media.
Slager was indicted last June by a state grand jury on a murder charge. He was one of just 10 officers who were charged with a crime in connection to the 990 fatal police shootings last year, according to a Washington Post database.
Federal civil rights charges are even more rare. An investigation earlier this year by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review found that the Justice Department has declined to bring federal charges in 96 percent of the more than 13,000 federal civil rights complaints against police officers they’ve received since 1995.
Chris Stewart, an attorney for the Scott family, said he was relieved and excited by the news of the federal indictment, which he called a historic step toward justice in police brutality cases.
“Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, all of them, every significant case the Justice Department has investigated and no indictments came down. This is the first time that an indictment has come down in a national case,” Stewart said. “I’m still in a state of shock…I don’t know in the past 20 years out of thousands of allegations of police misconduct how often this has happened, if it ever has. The biggest thing is that the general public must understand is how monumental this is.”
Stewart said the indictment has brought further vindication to the Scott family.
“They are beyond relived and just, they feel vindicated,” Stewart said. “They can’t bring Walter back, but if Walter can be the reason that the federal government starts taking these cases…if Walter Scott can be that example than his death wasn’t in vain.”
The indictment was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Division of South Carolina. While it was received by the court Tuesday and initially sealed, Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant on Wednesday granted a government motion to unseal the case. Marchant also signed an order Tuesday for a warrant to be issued for Slager’s arrest.
A hearing was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon in Charleston.