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'Justice Has Been Served' In South Carolina, Former Justice Department Official Says


Civil rights activists are claiming a big victory. This after a judge in South Carolina sentenced Michael Slager to 20 years in prison yesterday. Slager was the white police officer who shot and killed a black man named Walter Scott during a traffic stop in 2015. Scott was unarmed at the time. And his name became part of a long list of black men killed at the hands of police in this country.

Michael Brown, Eric Garner - that list goes on. Those deaths motivated protests around the country that brought the Black Lives Matter movement to life. Chris Stewart, a lawyer for Walter Scott's family, called yesterday a historic day for civil rights.


CHRIS STEWART: This is all people crave is accountability. That's all that people want when you're questioning why somebody may be kneeling, when you're seeing why someone may be marching in the street. They're doing it because the sense of accountability has been lost in officer-involved shootings.

MARTIN: For more on the significance of this case and Slager's sentence, we are joined by Vanita Gupta. During the Obama administration, she ran the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which prosecuted the Walter Scott case. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

VANITA GUPTA: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Michael Slager will serve 20 years in a federal prison for killing Walter Scott. Do you believe justice has been served?

GUPTA: I do believe that justice has been served in this case. As you said, there's been a long line of cases where there has not been accountability. And this was a case where the Justice Department felt like even under the very high federal bar, we could get accountability in this case.

MARTIN: So we should just note that the Michael Slager murder trial ended in - it was a deadlocked jury last year. Prosecutors were going to retry, then Slager pleaded guilty to one federal civil rights charge. And this is the sentence that we've seen handed down this week. I want to ask, there have been many cases of police shootings in which there is seemingly powerful video evidence, as there was in this case, yet the officers aren't convicted.

What was different here?

GUPTA: I think there are a couple of factors. One is that as you know, in a lot of these cases, there is video and it isn't enough to establish a conviction. In the federal cases, it is such a high bar. You've got to prove that there was a constitutional violation and that the officer actually knew what he or she was doing was wrong but did it anyway. And in this case, the video established that there was a significant distance between Walter Scott and Michael Slager and that there was time for Michael Slager to have consciousness of guilt.

And then the planting of the Taser right after, it indicated that he knew he did the wrong thing. It showed the consciousness of guilt. And so these kinds of elements put together, I think, convinced the judge that Michael Slager deserved a very significant sentence.

MARTIN: So you just laid out some very particular circumstances. I mean, do you believe that this case is an anomaly, essentially, that the facts lined up just so in order to get a conviction or might it set a precedent, might it have a broader impact moving forward for other cases like this?

GUPTA: Well, I think it's hard to generalize because every case has its own unique set of facts and the law. And certainly in this case, those were able to establish a conviction and yield the kind of sentence we see today. But I think it's undoubtable that there's been a real kind of consciousness shifting in the country around these issues, a lot of activism and advocacy pointing in anger, frankly, around the lack of accountability in officer-involved shootings of unarmed black men.

And I think that that has started to yield some shifting. You're seeing it in district attorney elections where election issues are being raised about how they're going to deal with these issues. District attorneys have lost office because of a perceived inability or unwillingness to charge in these cases. And I think that there's no question that the consciousness is yielding more of a kind of impact on local DAs.

But it is - you know, it's hard to say that this is going to yield a major shift because every case is different.

MARTIN: Vanita Gupta, she's the former head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice under the Obama administration. She's now president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

GUPTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.