Slager files suit over legal defense

Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who has been charged with murder in the death of Walter Scott in April, is led into court in September in Charleston.

Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager is suing a police fraternal organization for failing to defend him against a murder charge in the killing of Walter Scott.

Slager’s civil attorneys filed the lawsuit Tuesday against Southern States Police Benevolent Association Inc. in U.S. District Court in Charleston. The suit alleges breach of contract, unfair insurance practices and bad faith. It seeks unspecified damages.

The Southern States Police Benevolent Association is made up of more than 40,000 local and federal law enforcement officers. Its chief executive officer, Jack L. Roberts, was not immediately available for comment.

Slager paid the organization a monthly fee for insurance that would provide him a legal defense if sued or charged with a crime in connection with his actions as a police officer. But the organization abandoned him after Slager was accused in April of killing Walter Scott during an on-duty confrontation, according to the lawsuit.

“For us, it’s about how Slager paid $23.50 a month for one thing — to cover him if he got accused or sued if he did something in his capacity as a police officer,” said Ronnie Richter, Slager’s attorney. “Regardless of how you feel about the Slager situation, it seems to be an outrageous act by an insurance company to deny coverage.”

Slager faces between 30 years and life in prison if convicted of murder in Scott’s April 4 shooting death, which followed a traffic stop and a struggle between the two men. A bystander’s video of the incident showed Slager fire eight times as Scott ran away, striking the 50-year-old man five times from behind.

The shooting made North Charleston the focus of national scrutiny on police officers’ use of force against black men. Slager is white, and Scott was black.

Slager was arrested three days later after the video footage surfaced.

Slager’s coverage through the PBA entitled him to legal representation for “any duty related shooting or action which results in death or serious injury,” according to the lawsuit. He has maintained that he was acting within the scope of his duties at the time. He has pleaded not guilty to the murder charge and remains jailed while awaiting trial.

The PBA initially assigned criminal defense attorney David Aylor to represent Slager. Aylor released a statement on his behalf the day before the video surfaced.

The next day, however, when Slager was charged with murder and the video of the shooting went viral around the world, Aylor withdrew as Slager’s lawyer, calling the incident “a terrible tragedy that has impacted our community.”

Slager requested that the PBA provide him with another attorney, but on April 8 the organization turned him down, the lawsuit stated. In doing so, the PBA cited a clause in its insurance coverage allowing it to withhold benefits if it determines an officer had “committed an intentional, deliberate and/or illegal act, either civilly or criminally,” the lawsuit stated.

Slager’s attorneys, however, argue in the suit that the PBA denied Slager benefits without a full and fair investigation into the matter, leaving him to foot a “substantial” legal bill on his own.

After Aylor’s departure, prominent Charleston defense lawyer Andy Savage stepped in to represent Slager and has done so ever since. Savage did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit filed on his client’s behalf.

Aylor also could not be reached for comment, though in the past he has declined to explain his decision to withdraw from the case, citing attorney-client privilege.

Representing Slager in the lawsuit against the PBA are Richter and attorney Eric Bland, who have made headlines in recent months for representing the family of Zachary Hammond, a teen who was fatally shot by a Seneca police officer in July.

Tony Bartelme contributed to this report.

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