Lawyer at center of race, gun debate of two cases

BRUCE SMITH | 9/6/2016, 12:22 p.m.
In his law office, Andy Savage keeps a sealed plastic bag with the blood-splattered clothes that Felicia Sanders wore sheltering ...
Felicia Sanders, a survivor of the shootings at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, poses with attorney Andy Savage in Savage's office in Charleston, South Carolina, Aug. 4. Savage represents victims and the families of victims of the June, 2015 shootings at the church, as well as Michael Slager, a White former policeman facing a murder charge in the shooting of a Black motorist. Trials in both cases are scheduled to begin in Charleston this fall. Bruce Smith

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) – In his law office, Andy Savage keeps a sealed plastic bag with the blood-splattered clothes that Felicia Sanders wore sheltering her granddaughter from a fusillade of bullets that killed nine Black parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.

Down the hall, his colleagues met recently with another client, Michael Slager, the White former North Charleston police officer charged in the death of a Black motorist in a shooting captured on an explosive cellphone video.

Many would say Savage is on conflicting sides in these high-profile cases. On one hand, he represents the three survivors and families of five Black parishioners who died in the church shooting and is suing the federal government over the sale of a gun to a White man in the case; on the other, he’s defending a White officer charged with murder after a Black motorist was shot eight times in the back.

As the cases go to trial in the coming months and Charleston finds itself at the intersection of national debates over race, guns and the judicial system, Savage is in the middle. But to him, the cases are simply about justice for his clients.

“I don’t pick and choose which injustices I’m going to represent,” the 68-year-old Savage said in an interview. “We’re lawyers. It doesn’t matter what the public says or if the press says that we’re no-good SOBs.”

Savage has handled celebrated cases in Charleston and beyond for decades. Among them: a policeman charged in the death of a city jail inmate, a 17-year-old girl facing the death penalty in the slaying of a small-town police chief, a man accused of being a terrorist sleeper agent and an economics professor charged with bilking investment clients.

“I’ve represented plenty of people I wouldn’t invite to dinner,” Savage said in his office, crowded with pictures of his four children and 10 grandchildren as well as several Emmy awards the former county councilman won for a cable television public affairs show.

Savage – who worked as a cabbie in New York during college before moving south and attending the University of South Carolina Law School, then began his career as an Air Force attorney and state prosecutor before turning to criminal defense – admits he’s been criticized for taking Slager’s case.

“I can understand why because the narrative that’s spoken is selecting certain facts – a White cop, an African American suspect, a traffic stop – those are all words that resonate in the African American community,” Savage said.

He said “the hair came up on the back of my neck” when he first saw the footage of the shooting of Walter Scott. But Savage contends there’s more to it than a brief video – a tussle for the officer’s stun gun, Slager warning Scott to stop or he will fire, and no backup from other officers.

Savage calls it “a terrible insult to justice in America” that the 33-year-old Slager was immediately fired, his first lawyer dropped him and his police association refused to pay his legal costs.