Ex-officer appeals 20-year sentence for killing Black man
COLUMBIA, SC (AP) - A former South Carolina police officer who served 20 years in prison for killing an unarmed black man who ran from a traffic obstruction said his attorney never told him about an offer from prosecutors, that year could have shortened his sentence.
Former North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager is petitioning for a new verdict in federal court this week. He said he accepted the deal and his attorney, one of South Carolina's most successful lawyers, was grossly incompetent for not telling him about it.
Prosecutors said the mistake did not rise above the very high bar of overturning Slager's verdict, adding that his defense was excellent in almost every other way.
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The white slager pleaded guilty in 2017 for shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back five times. Slager called Scott for a broken brake light and Scott ran.
The two fell to the ground after Slager hit Scott with a taser, but Scott stood up and was 5 meters from the officer when he was shot five times in the back, authorities said.
The shooting was captured on cellphone video, which Slager didn't know when he told investigators that Scott charged him after stealing his taser. The video was shown worldwide on social media.
Slager's new attorneys are not questioning his guilt, just a sentence that federal prison records will keep him behind bars until 2033 - one of the longest sentences for any officer who has shot on duty in recent years.
The two-day federal virtual complaint hearing, which began Monday, focuses on Slager's former attorney Andy Savage and whether he did his job for a defense that cost nearly $ 100,000 in tax dollars.
While Slager pleaded guilty to violating civil rights, the length of his sentence depended on how Federal Judge David Norton interpreted the shooting. If it was voluntary manslaughter committed in the heat of passion, conviction meant that Slager might only have seven years to go.
But Norton decided the shooting constituted second degree murder because Slager had fired a total of nine shots and lied that Scott had stolen his taser.
Savage said in court records that he failed to inform Slager of the possible plea deal offered eight months earlier because he spoke with Federal Judge David Norton during a private meeting about public funding of Slager's defense at which the Judge said this was a "not a murder" case. "
Savage assumed Norton would decide it was a manslaughter with the top end of the sentencing guidelines being eight years in prison, nearly four years less than the bottom end of the prosecutor's offer. He recommended Slager to plead guilty without the deal.
Savage never asked Norton for clarity. In court files on Slager's appeal, Norton said he was discussing Slager's state trial for murder, which had already taken place and resulted in a trial.
Slager said he first heard of the plea when Savage visited him in Colorado Federal Prison, where he is serving his sentence.
Savage has been an attorney since 1975. He is known in Charleston for picking up some of the most difficult cases in the area - a police officer charged with the death of a city jail inmate or a 17-year-old girl who was sentenced to death in the murder of a town police chief.
Along with Slager, Savage was also an attorney for one of the members of the black church who were spared a racist massacre that killed nine people in a Charleston church two months after Slager's arrest.
Savage testified Monday during federal judge Richard Gergel's virtual hearing that he had given Slager everything he had and that he thought Norton had considered all the facts before delivering his verdict.
Savage said his regrets misunderstood the case. “I had misinterpreted the signals received, one of which was from Judge Norton. I wanted Michael to get the best possible result and he didn't, "Savage said, according to the state newspaper's coverage of the hearing on Monday.
Gergel told Savage that sometimes "people want to blame lawyers for the results, but lawyers are lawyers, they're not wizards, are they?"
"No sir," replied Savage.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.
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David P. Norton
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