Federal judge questions merit in former cop’s bid to reduce 20-year prison sentence

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John Monk
·6 min read
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A federal judge on Tuesday sharply criticized former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager’s bid to overturn his 20-year prison sentence in the shooting death of Walter Scott on the basis that Slager’s defense attorney had been incompetent in arranging a plea deal.

“Calling Mr. (Andy) Savage ineffective is ridiculous,” said U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel at the end of a two-day hearing, referring to Slager’s depiction of his lawyer.

Gergel made no final decision on Tuesday and said he will give Slager’s bid “further thought.”

Savage was the defense team’s architect of a 2017 plea deal in which Slager agreed to plead guilty to the 2015 fatal shooting of Scott during a daylight encounter over a minor traffic violation that turned violent. Scott was African American and Slager is white.

Under the plea deal, sentencing in the case was to be left up to U.S. District Judge David Norton, who agreed to hear evidence from prosecutors and Slager’s defense lawyers before making a decision on how many years Slager would spend in prison.

In December 2017, Norton gave Slager 20 years in prison. Slager and his lawyers had hoped for a five- to 10-year sentence.

All of the facts in the case turned out to be against Slager, Gergel said on Tuesday.

“Here was the fact no one could escape,” Gergel said. “(Slager) shot a fleeing man (Scott), who had been stopped for a non-working rear light, and he shot him five times, and he took eight shots at him at between 15 and 49 feet, the last shot of which fatal.”

Not only did Slager kill an unarmed fleeing man over a minor traffic offense, Gergel said on Tuesday that Slager “lied about it, repeatedly lied” to investigators.

A written opinion from Gergel will be forthcoming.

Slager speaks from prison

Initially after the shooting, Slager told investigators that Scott had attacked him and he had shot Scott in self-defense.

But days later, a bystander’s video surfaced showing Scott was running away when shots were fired. The video went viral around the nation and world.

It is one of many incidents in recent years cited as an example of how some white police officers use excessive force on Black people.

Slager, 39, testified Tuesday morning remotely from Englewood Federal Correctional Institution in Colorado. He told Gergel that Savage had told him in 2017, months before he agreed to plead guilty, that Judge Norton did not believe Savage’s case was a murder case.

Norton had made that observation during a January 2017 meeting with Savage’s defense team. Savage, his assistant and his legal partner, Don McCune, took Norton’s observation to mean that Norton would characterize the case as manslaughter, in which case Slager was likely to get a prison sentence of 10 years or less if Slager were to plead guilty.

“I remember Andy being very excited about the comment Judge Norton made, very excited,” Slager testified under direct questioning by his lawyer, Chris Geel. “He (Savage) was excited because the judge said it wasn’t murder. It seemed to me Judge Norton already made his mind up.”

From then on, every time Slager met with Savage and his defense team, Norton’s remark came up, Slager said.

“I was extremely happy,” Slager testified. “Judge Norton wasn’t going to sentence me for murder. It would be a lesser charge.”

Although Savage and his defense team conducted intense behind-the-scenes negotiations for the next four months in 2017, the best they could come up with was a plea deal in which Judge Norton would be allowed to hear evidence about the case being a murder case. The agreement said Slager was exposed to a potential life sentence.

In court on Tuesday, Slager insisted he was unaware of details of the behind-the-scenes plea negotiations going on in early 2017 and continued to believe that Norton would not view the case as a murder case.

“(Savage) said, ‘Judge Norton already has his mind made up,’ ” Slager testified.

Federal prosecutor Rose Gibson cross-examined Slager on Tuesday, showing him an April 2017 letter containing numerous emails about plea discussions that Savage had had with prosecutors. Slager had signed the letter, writing, “I have reviewed and I endorse the information in this letter.’ “

“Is it your testimony you never saw one email?” Gibson asked.

“I was getting so many emails a day,” Slager said. “I don’t remember what I had for lunch last week.”

But, Gibson asked, “Did you understand at that time judge would ultimately … make the decision (about sentencing) and he had not yet decided?”

Slager replied, “I thought he already made that decision when he (Norton) talked with the lawyers in the office.”

Slager said he first learned of a favorable plea offer a year or two later, when Savage and his court partner, McCune, flew to his prison in Colorado and told him the government had offered a deal between about 12 and 15 years.

“Andy told me, ‘I was offered a plea, and he didn’t tell me,” Slager testified. “I was in shock. Why would you come all the way to Colorado ... and tell me this now? He said he made a mistake.”

Summing up the case at the hearing’s end, Gergel praised Savage’s work, noting Savage was thorough on the case, had a team of lawyers and numerous experts and had many reasons to expect a lighter prison sentence from Judge Norton.

A jury in a 2016 state trial held in Charleston found Slager not guilty of murder before being unable to reach a verdict on manslaughter charges, Gergel noted.

Slager had tried and failed to blame Scott for provoking a fight that caused the shooting, Gergel said.

“He now seeks to blame his lawyer and the sentencing judge,” Gergel said.

Gergel continued: “I’m not sure any defendant has had a more vigorous defense that that provided by Mr. Savage. No matter how capable and creative and resourceful the lawyer is, you can’t turn lemons into lemonade.”

Walter Scott’s brother, Anthony Scott, told Gergel on Tuesday that Slager’s action not only killed his brother, but caused so much stress on his parents that they have since died.

Anthony Scott said he sympathized with Slager not being able to see his young son, now about 5 years old in his “growing years.”

“I do understand how it feels to have your family torn apart,” he said.

Anthony Scott said he hopes someday Slager will “accept responsibility for what he has done.”

“We believe in the justice system,” he told Gergel, “and we believe in God working through you today.”