Michael Slager, the North Charleston police officer caught on camera gunning down an obviously harmless unarmed suspect fleeing a traffic stop, just pleaded guilty to the federal charge of "deprivation of rights under color of law." In theory, he faces a maximum life sentence, but it's always a mistake to assume that the maximum sentence will be applied.
Part of Slager's deal with federal prosecutors was that in exchange for this plea, state murder charges and other federal charges are being dropped.
You probably know the story: Thanks to a passer-by with a phone, Slager was actually caught on tape gunning down Walter Scott at a range of about 20 feet and widening. There is nothing subtle about it, nor are there any indications that there was any good reason for shooting him. The footage is so shocking that Slager's defense attorney at the time withdrew from the case right after it was released. Given the pace of his running, Scott did not look like he could have gotten very far, either.
Before the video emerged, Slager claimed that Scott had wrestled his Taser from him, and that he feared Scott would use it on him. The video does show a brief struggle, but it completely puts the lie to the idea that Scott had the Taser or could have used it on Slager at the time when Slager started shooting.
So is this a good deal for the prosecution? Perhaps it's fair to say that doing time is doing time, and as long as Slager does it then who cares? It's perhaps understandable to think everyone is just happy to have this case behind them with some kind of conviction after a single obstinate juror forced a mistrial the first time it went to state criminal court.
But think of it this way: How many people have been rightly convicted and put to death on murder charges with far less evidence than there is in this case? Why do you offer any deal when the evidence couldn't be clearer and an eventual conviction is inevitable?
Is there a level playing field in the justice system for cops and regular people? Is there any recognition within prosecutors' discretion of the additional, extraordinary criminal liability that should attach when an officer abuses his official power in a manner so flagrant?
Add to all this the fact that, if not for the passer-by, Slager would have almost certainly gotten away with it.
It's nice to see Slager face justice, but it's hard to swallow the idea that prosecutors would let someone caught red-handed negotiate a less-than-unconditional surrender.