Michael Slager, the fired North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer accused of killing an unarmed black man after a traffic stop, looks likely to get a robust defense. But just who’s paying for it appears to be a closely guarded secret.
On Wednesday, Andy Savage, a prominent and high-powered Charleston defense lawyer, announced he’s representing Slager, who was charged with murder after video emerged showing him shooting Walter Scott eight times as Scott fled. Slager’s previous attorney, David Aylor, quit after the video became public.
Among Savage’s high-profile clients are an accused enemy combatant alleged to have ties to al-Qaeda, and a woman accused of letting her two children die of heat exposure after leaving them for hours in a parked car. He also has hosted an Emmy-Award-winning public affairs show on local cable TV.
Savage didn’t return a phone call from msnbc, or respond to an email that asked who’s paying his fee.
Paul Bergman, a professor emeritus at UCLA Law School and a co-author of The Criminal Law Handbook, said a standard fee for a top criminal defense lawyer in a murder case might involve a retainer of $10,000 to 15,000, plus hourly fees for the lawyer him or herself and a team of investigators, all of whom might cost $200-300 per hour. But he added that it’s not uncommon for lawyers to offer substantial discounts in such cases, either because of the publicity value or out of political sympathy for the accused.
“If he’s well-known and not giving a discount, it’s hard to imagine a police officer would be able to afford this,” Bergman said.
Of course, Slager could be getting help making the payments.
Ryan Johnson, a spokesman for the city of North Charleston, said via email that the city is not paying for Slager’s defense. Police chief Eddie Driggers said at a press conference Wednesday that Slager had been terminated. The city has said it will continue to pay for health insurance for Slager's pregnant wife.
When officers are accused of crimes stemming from their law enforcement duties, police unions often provide financial and other support. An email from msnbc to a spokesman for the Southern States Police Benevolent Association (SSPBA) was forwarded to Charles Cordell, a lawyer for the group, who responded: “Neither, the Southern States PBA, nor the South Carolina PBA are involved in this case."
Asked to confirm that neither group was offering financial support for Slager, Cordell repeated his previous statement. Cordell did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking clarification.
There's no indication that Slager has family money. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard in Florida fr six years, according to his job application, and has worked as a waiter in New Jersey. He and his wife live in Hanahan, S.C., where the median household income is just over $39,000.
A “Michael T. Slager Support Fund” page created on the online funding site IndieGoGo had raised just $749 as of Thursday afternoon. It showed a goal of $5,000. An earlier page set up on the site GoFundMe was taken down for failing to comply with the site’s terms of service.
A message on the IndieGoGo site tells visitors: “We're campaigning to show our Support for Officer Michael T. Slager! We believe in all of our LEOs and want to publicly support them! Although he may have made mis-steps in judgement he was protecting the community. Michael is a former Coast Guardsman with two stepchildren and a wife who is expecting a child, served for more than five years with the department without being disciplined. Please help in any way you can. He has served five years with the department without being disciplined.”
A message sent to the organizers of an affiliated Facebook page was not returned.
A supporter of Darren Wilson, the one-time Ferguson, Missouri police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, reportedly raised over $500,000 online for Wilson’s defense. But Wilson became something of a cause celebre for conservatives, and there was no video of his encounter with Brown. A grand jury investigated the case and refused to indict Wilson for the killing. By contrast, even many conservatives have denounced Slager for firing into Scott’s back.
Update, 3:50 p.m., 4/11/15: In a statement to the press, Savage wrote that the SSPBA had provided Slager's previous counsel, but confirmed that the group is no longer involved in the case. Savage also wrote that he won't give interviews until after Scott's funeral, which is scheduled for Saturday.
Below is Savage's full statement:
Earlier this week, Andy filed an Appearance Notice with the Charleston County Clerk of Court. He was requested to assist Mr. Slager by the Slager family after his previous counsel terminated his representation. Previous counsel was provided to Mr. Slager by the Southern States Police Benevolent Association pursuant to Mr. Slager’s membership and the member benefits ostensibly offered by that organization (union). We have confirmed that no investigation was undertaken by Mr. Slager’s previous counsel or the PBA, and we have been advised that the PBA is no longer involved.Andy has a full schedule of meetings today with Slager’s family members, investigators, potential witnesses and other members of Mr. Slager’s defense team. Unfortunately, despite having made requests, he has not received the cooperation from law enforcement that the media has, and he has yet to receive any investigative documents, audio or video tapes, other than a copy of Mr. Slager’s arrest warrant. Andy has now filed a more formal request.Andy has tremendous respect for and an excellent working relationship with the prosecutor in this matter, and he has been in regular communication with her office. He remains confident that he will receive all pertinent documents, including audio and video tapes, as soon as the Solicitor receives them from law enforcement.Out of respect for Mr. Scott’s family, Andy has elected not to provide any media interviews until the Scott’s have had time to grieve their loss and bury their loved one.Our firm has heard from a number of exceptional attorneys in South Carolina and elsewhere who have offered to provide assistance in this difficult matter. Andy is grateful for their support and in due time will announce other attorneys who will join Mr. Slager’s defense team.