CHARLESTON, S.C. – Andy Savage keeps in his law office 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 Associated Press 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 TV 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.
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, said the nature of the case “doesn’t make the black community too happy.” But she’s known Savage for years and has seen him represent minority clients. “If I were in trouble, I’d want Andy to represent me,” she said.
Savage’s defense of Slager doesn’t bother Sanders, a longtime friend. “I don’t even think about it. I know that’s his job,” she said.
Sanders lost her son and an aunt in the June 17, 2015, church attack and the next morning returned home to find reporters camped outside.
“I had the clothes, blood on my legs and everything,” she said. Her first thought was to call Savage. “He said, ‘I’m on my way,’ and he hasn’t left me since.”
Sanders worries that Savage — or his wife of 30 years, Cheryl, who manages the firm and is always beside him in court — won’t be with her as Dylann Roof stands trial in a federal death penalty trial set for November. The Slager trial begins in state court a week earlier. The cases are expected to unfold simultaneously in courtrooms on the opposite sides of the street.
In Savage’s office, his team doesn’t call Roof by name. He’s referred to only as “that guy” or “this kid” to avoid personalizing a man prosecutors say posed with the Confederate flag and talked of staring a race war.
Savage say that after the church shootings, there was no immediate intent to sue the FBI over failing to check that Roof’s background allowed him to buy the gun.
Then, two months later, a TV reporter and cameraman from a Roanoke, Virginia, station were killed during a live broadcast.
“Felicia called and asked, ‘Did we cause what happened in Virginia? Is Charleston an excuse for this continuing?'” Savage said.
More shootings followed, and lawmakers and officials struggled to close the so-called Charleston loophole, which allows three business days to finish vetting a gun buyer through a background check before the sale can proceed by default.
The lawsuit was filed last month, and Savage and his clients hope the result will be safer gun laws and fewer mass shootings.
“Every time it happens, it feels like the night of June 17th,” Sanders said. “I know how every other mother feels.”
Savage added, “June 17th continues today, and it’s going to continue until there is some relief.”
Savage said he’s working equally hard in both cases. “I’ve always thought my obligation is that God has given me the talent to be a lawyer, and that talent wasn’t given to me to buy a new car every year but was given me to help people,” he said.