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Former SC cop convicted in Walter Scott shooting works to change 20-year sentence

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Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager appears in a state courtroom in Charleston in January 2017. A federal judge has granted him a two-day hearing in his bid to get his 20-year sentence changed or overturned. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Just over six years after he fatally shot an unarmed Black motorist, former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager is in court trying to have his 20-year federal prison sentence overturned or reduced. 

It will be up to U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel to decide whether Slager's former attorney, Andy Savage, failed to provide competent legal representation and committed errors leading to an overly harsh sentence. 

If Gergel rules in the former officer's favor, that sentence could be reduced or overturned. 

The first of two days of virtual hearings in Charleston got off to a busy start April 12 with Savage; the attorney's wife, Cheryl; Slager's father, Tom; his ex-wife, Jamie; and Don McCune, another attorney on Slager's defense team, each called to the stand. 

Questions by Christopher Geel, who represents the former officer in his appeal, and Brook Andrews, an assistant U.S. Attorney, centered on three key areas: How closely Savage and his team worked to keep Slager apprised of developments in the case; the impact of comments made by U.S. District Judge David Norton; and plea negotiations with federal prosecutors in the first months of 2017.

"As deeply and passionately as you felt about your defense … you didn't think the judge was a gimmie," Gergel said toward the end of the first day's hearing. "You know you had to persuade (him)."

"Yes," Savage said. 

Slager was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison in December 2017, over two years after he fatally shot Walter Scott, 50, following a traffic stop, foot chase and struggle over a Taser on April 4, 2015.

The shooting made international news after cellphone video recorded by a bystander surfaced in the days following the shooting which contradicted Slager’s initial account.

Over more than two hours of testimony, the defense attorney spoke about the significant challenge he faced.

When the state case ended with a mistrial in December 2016, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson moved to schedule a new trail date and Slager's defense team was faced with a major, lingering worry, Savage said.  

Whatever was said in federal court could possibly be used against Slager in state court.

Both the former officer and his attorney wanted to ensure he stayed out of S.C. Department of Corrections custody, where they believed it would be impossible to protect him from violence by other inmates. 

A major portion of early questions the hearing's first day centered on were comments made by Norton, an old friend of Savage's who was overseeing the federal case in 2017. 

During a routine meeting that January to discuss the budget for Savage's defense of Slager, Norton made an unsolicited comment — Slager's case was not murder. 

Although the former officer was charged with violating Scott's civil rights, whether the underlying offense was murder or manslaughter would play a significant role in sentencing. 

If Norton found Slager acted with malice, it would open the door up to a murder finding and significantly more prison time. 

"It was what everything else about the case told me," Savage testified. "It wasn’t like (Norton) said that and we hung our hat on that. It was confirmation of everything else we knew about Michael."

Meanwhile, both the federal and state cases loomed and weeks passed without an agreement between Slager's defense and the federal and state prosecutors working to convict him, Savage said. 

By late that April, the attorney said, he was beginning to feel boxed in.

Lacking an agreement with both state and federal authorities, Savage decided the best course of action would be to sign a federal plea agreement. 

It wasn't only the judge's statement months earlier that persuaded Savage to advise Slager to sign a plea deal. 

Savage testified the state jury ruled out murder, a federal pre-sentencing report recommended prison in line with manslaughter, Slager lacked criminal history and the attorney felt he could prove Scott's actions contributed to the shooting. 

In December 2017, the judge's decision came. Savage and his team hoped for a 5-year term. 

"A shock," the attorney said of the sentence. "Much more than a surprise. I recall Michael was sitting next to me looking at me in the eye. I was speechless."

Savage and his wife each testified their legal team worked diligently on Slager's behalf, the latter saying she'd never seen her husband work so hard on a case. 

The attorney said he believed he'd have an opportunity to further argue for a more lenient sentence before Norton. 

The first day of hearings began at 10 a.m. April 12 and ran until shortly after 5 p.m. It is set to continue April 13. 

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-323-9175. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

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