Michael Slager Declared Indigent
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) — The Ninth Circuit Public Defender’s Office has said Michael Slager, the former North Charleston police officer accused of murder in the shooting death of Walter Scott, meets the guidelines for financial assistance from the state for his ongoing defense.
Attorneys for Slager are seeking state funding to pay for expert witnesses through the indigent defense program, so the afternoon decision is a step in the defense’s direction.
But Judge Clifton Newman still has to allow taxpayer funds to go towards Slager’s defense. In this case, the money would be used to secure expert witnesses. During Wednesday morning’s hearing, attorney Andy Savage said his team had already spent in excess of $100,000 on the case.
Savage, who is working on the Slager case pro bono, also noted he has yet to ask for any kind of payment for his legal assistance.
“We have not asked for one cent for any of the lawyers working hundreds and hundreds of hours on this case,” Savage said, pointing to a table packed with attorneys surrounding Slager.
But Hugh Ryan, one of two indigent defense experts brought into the court Wednesday to address the ex parte motion, said the way the case has played out could set a peculiar precedent for defendants to take on pro bono legal help only to seek indigence to get access to taxpayer funds to cover the cost of experts.
Ryan says the indigent defense office still wants to know how much a defense team expects to spend on experts; they don’t write blank checks, he said.
The issue with declaring Slager indigent, Ryan pointed out, was the order in which the case happened.
Before Savage, David Aylor took the case but backed out of it after the release of the cellphone video showing Slager shoot 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back as he ran away. Savage took the case pro bono, but did not complete the process to declare Slager indigent and have an attorney appointed to him.
Ryan says that means Savage is neither a contracted attorney assigned to the case or a public defender appointed to the case, which complicates the matter.
“I think we’re facing a novel situation here,” Ryan told the court.
State law outlines several types of indigent services for defendants who cannot pay for private legal help. One rule deals with the appointment of a competent attorney to the case. Another deals with getting access to money in the indigent defense fund to pay for expert witnesses to appear.
Savage is arguing for the latter.
The hearing came about after Savage asked for an opportunity to address a consent order that had gone unsigned by Newman, and Newman’s release of information about an ex parte motion filed on Slager’s behalf to declare him indigent and eligible for state-funded defense services.
Savage called the discussion of Slager’s indigence during a phone call involving attorneys on both sides of the case a “violation of the defendant’s rights” and said he felt the court was “intimidating.”
The criticisms continued Wednesday afternoon as Savage described some of the decisions made by the court so far in the case as laying the groundwork for judicial relief, in his opinion, and calling into question Newman’s ability to be impartial in the matter.
Until that call, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson was unaware Slager was seeking a declaration of indigence. Wilson also told the court she did not think it was her place to know the defendant’s financial status; she was only interested in knowing that he had competent legal counsel.
“I don’t think I have a dog in this fight,” Wilson told Newman.
Savage loudly objected three times to Newman’s remarks. “I cannot stay seated when this court changes the facts of this case,” he said.
Savage also asked about two other motions he had filed, one of a speedy trial and another for setting bond for Slager. But Newman said he would not discuss those issues and would let attorneys know when hearings to discuss those topics would be held as soon as he scheduled them.
He did not give a timeline to setting those schedules, to Savage’s chagrin.
Slager has been held in an isolated area of the Charleston County Detention Center since his arrest in April.