COLUMBIA, S.C. — A former South Carolina police officer serving 20 years in prison for killing an unarmed Black man who was running away from a traffic stop said his lawyer never told him about a plea offer from prosecutors that could have cut years off his sentence.
Ex-North Charleston police officer Michael Slager is asking for a new sentence in federal court this week, saying he would have taken the deal and his lawyer, one of South Carolina’s most accomplished attorneys, was grossly incompetent for not telling him about it.
Prosecutors said the mistake doesn’t rise over the very high bar of tossing out Slager’s sentence and added his defense was excellent in almost every other way.
Slager, who is white, pleaded guilty in 2017 to a federal civil rights charge for shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back five times. Slager pulled Scott over for a broken brake light and Scott ran.
The two tumbled to the ground after Slager hit Scott with a Taser, but Scott got back up and was 15 feet (5 meters) from the officer when he was shot five times in the back, authorities said.
The shooting was captured on cellphone video, something Slager didn’t know when he initially told investigators Scott had charged at him after stealing his Taser. The video was shown around the world on social media.
Slager’s new lawyers aren’t questioning his guilt, just a sentence that according to federal prison records will keep him behind bars until 2033 — one of the longest sentences for any officer for an on-duty shooting in recent years.
The two-day virtual federal appeals hearing that started Monday focuses on Slager’s former attorney Andy Savage and whether he did his job on a defense that cost nearly $100,000 in taxpayer money.
While Slager pleaded guilty to a civil rights offense, 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, sentencing guidelines meant Slager might have faced as little as seven years.
But Norton ruled the shooting amounted to second-degree murder because Slager fired nine shots total and lied about Scott stealing his Taser.
Savage said in court papers he did not tell Slager about the potential plea deal offered eight months before because of a conversation he had with federal judge David Norton during a private meeting about public funding for Slager’s defense where the judge said this “is not a murder case.”
Savage took it to believe Norton was going to rule it was a manslaughter case where the upper end of the sentencing guidelines were eight years in prison, nearly four years less than the lower end of the prosecution’s offer. He recommended Slager plead guilty without the deal.
Savage never asked Norton for clarity. In court papers in Slager’s appeal, Norton said he was discussing Slager’s state trial on murder charges which had already taken place and ended in a mistrial.
Slager said he first heard about the plea deal when Savage visited him in the federal prison in Colorado where he is serving his sentence.
Savage has been a lawyer since 1975. He is well known in Charleston for taking on some of the area’s toughest cases — a policeman charged in the death of a city jail inmate or a 17-year-old girl facing the death penalty in the slaying of a small-town police chief.
Along with Slager, Savage was the lawyer at the same time for one of the Black church members spared in a racist massacre that killed nine people in a Charleston church two months after Slager’s arrest.
Savage testified Monday during the virtual hearing held by federal judge Richard Gergel, saying he gave the defense of Slager all he had and he thought Norton considered all the facts before handing down his sentence.
Savage said his regret was misreading the case. “I had misinterpreted signals that I received, one of which was from Judge Norton. I wanted Michael to get the best possible outcome, and he didn’t,” Savage said, according to The State newspaper’s coverage of Monday’s hearing.
Gergel told Savage that sometimes “people want to blame lawyers for outcomes, but lawyers are advocates, they are not magicians are they?”
“No sir,” answered Savage.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.