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Why police who shot Walter Scott won't face death penalty

Former North Charleston, S.C., officer Michael Slager is charged with murder in the death of Walter Scott. But under state law, the shooting isn't likely to warrant the death penalty, says the prosecutor. 

A prosecutor says it doesn't look like the death penalty can be sought in the case of a black South Carolina man who was fatally shot as he ran from a white police officer.

Former North Charleston officer Michael Slager is charged with murder in the death of Walter Scott. The April 4 shooting was captured on cellphone video and showed Slager firing eight shots at Scott as he ran after a traffic stop.

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson released a statement earlier this week saying that, based on the facts so far, the death penalty doesn't appear to apply. Under state law, death can only be sought in a killing with aggravating circumstances such as robbery or kidnapping.

In the meantime, court documents show the case has been assigned to a black judge: Clifton Newman of Kingstree.

The Washington Post reported that police officers are given substantial leeway in the use of force under US law.  

A pair of Supreme Court rulings handed down in the 1980s govern when officers can use lethal or potentially excessive force.

In 1985, the court ruled in Tennessee v. Garner that police could shoot at a violent felon who was fleeing and posed a significant threat to others. Four years later, the justices ruled in Graham v. Connor that officers can use force if they have an “objectively reasonable” belief that a suspect is a safety threat or is trying to evade arrest, as Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the court’s opinion. This “reasonable” standard has to allow for the reality that police often have to make rapid decisions “in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving,” as Rehnquist put it.

An analysis conducted by The Washington Post and researchers at Bowling Green Sate University found:

While thousands of officers shot and killed someone over the last decade, a small fraction of them — 55 officers as of this week — faced criminal charges. (That number includes a Tulsa reserve deputy charged with manslaughter this week after he shot and killed an unarmed man.) Most of the officers who were charged and had their cases resolved were acquitted or had the charges dropped; the officers who are convicted or plead guilty average four years behind bars, while some serve just a number of weeks.

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