S.C. high court assigns Kingstree judge to case

The S.C. Supreme Court on Tuesday assigned a judge from outside the 9th Judicial Circuit to preside over every step of the criminal case against former North Charleston police officer Michael T. Slager.

Third Circuit Judge Clifton Newman of Kingstree “shall decide all matters pertaining to this case” and will “retain jurisdiction ... regardless of where he may be assigned to hold court,” Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote in the order.

The move came unexpectedly for 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who announced the news Tuesday night on her Facebook page. Wilson said she had been informed by email.

Though he is based outside the circuit where Slager is set to be prosecuted, Newman, like other judges, hears cases in Charleston from time to time.

“While I was unaware this was in the works,” Wilson said on Facebook, “it is not without precedent for the chief justice to assign judges to cases.”

But Slager’s attorney, Andy Savage of Charleston, said Toal’s “unprecedented but long overdue” decision would ensure that constitutional due process provisions will be followed and would be well-received by attorneys statewide.

The high court’s order gives Newman the authority to set hearings regardless of whether a term of court is scheduled.

“Judge Newman enjoys an excellent reputation as a jurist and we look forward to working under his guidance,” Savage said. “A more competent member of the judiciary could not be found.”

Slager faces a murder charge in the April 4 death of 50-year-old Walter L. Scott. A video showed the officer shooting Scott five times as Scott ran away.

Slager has said that he feared that Scott would use his own Taser against him.

The case has been tinged with questions about the role of race in policing. Slager is white. Scott was black.

Newman, the 63-year-old judge now handling the case, decided to pursue a career in law after playing an attorney in a high school play about the 1954 school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, his state Judicial Department Web page says.

The Cleveland-Marshall College of Law graduate succeeded for 24 years as a private attorney before serving for 17 years as a prosecutor. The General Assembly elected him to the bench in 2000.

Wilson did not comment further, and she has not responded to some calls for her to relinquish the case to a prosecutor outside the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, which prosecutes most of the North Charleston Police Department’s cases. Wilson has said in earlier statements that she plans to see the case through and diligently update the public on any developments.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.