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In Washington, Michael Slager defense team discusses case with Justice Department

March 10, 2017 GMT

Michael Slager’s chief defense attorney said he met Friday with Department of Justice officials in Washington to critique how the civil rights case against the former policeman has played out, not to hash out an agreement to end it.

The former North Charleston officer faces a federal trial in May for the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott, a black man whose death was captured on a cellphone video.

But dubious statements about police oversight by key officials in President Donald Trump’s new government have stirred suspicion about how aggressively they would pursue the prosecution. To one representative of Scott’s family, Friday’s meeting posed further questions about their dedicated.

Charleston attorney Andy Savage reiterated Friday that he has seen no shift from the authorities. Instead, the meeting with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was an opportunity to air the defense team’s various grievances, including how Slager faces a double-barrel prosecution by both state and federal authorities.

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“It was a very congenial meeting ... with mostly listening,” Savage said. “Nobody was looking for an agreement. It wasn’t that kind of meeting. ... It would be a little bit presumptuous at this stage for the new administration to do a U-turn after the previous administration had been so firm and aggressive in their prosecution of Slager.”

Attempts to contact representatives of others involved were not successful.

Scott family attorney Chris Stewart said he was taken aback by the development.

“I am concerned ... that it’s even on the Justice Department’s radar right now to have an in-person meeting with Slager’s defense team about his concerns with being prosecuted after having killed someone,” Stewart said. “There have been no meetings that the family has been invited to. ... That just doesn’t sit right.”

Career prosecutors from the Civil Rights Division and Acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler, the unit’s chief, were there. Wheeler was Vice President Mike Pence’s general counsel when Pence was Indiana governor. A telephone message left with division spokesman Mark Abueg was not immediately returned.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was not involved, Savage said.

Also attending were U.S. Attorney Beth Drake, South Carolina’s top federal prosecutor, and two other attorneys helping to defend Slager: Donald McCune of Savage’s firm and Charleston School of Law professor Miller Shealy.

A spokesman for Drake earlier this week said he could not comment on any meeting in Washington, and he could not be reached Friday.

In state court, Slager was tried on a murder charge in Scott’s death, but a jury deadlocked during its verdict deliberations.

That restarted the federal case, and Savage said Friday that it’s expected to go to trial. A hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday in U.S. District Court.

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Slager, 35, pulled over Scott’s car on April 4, 2015, because of a broken brake light and ran after the fleeing motorist. They fought, and the officer said Scott grabbed his Taser, prompting his gunfire in self-defense.

A bystander’s video showed Scott, 50, turning around to run away during the confrontation as the Taser bounded along the dirt, though Slager said he thought the suspect still had the weapon.

Slager opened fire with Scott at least 15 feet away. Five of the eight gunshots hit Scott from behind.

Though the officer was jailed soon after the video emerged publicly, he wasn’t indicted in federal court until the next year.

Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, rebuffed calls by Slager’s defense team for a meeting to discuss the indictment before it came through.

Since then, Savage and the other attorneys have filed motions citing rules on double jeopardy in a bid to get the case dismissed. State and federal prosecutors have worked so closely together, creating an unfair advantage, the lawyers argued.

Simultaneous cases against the same defendant are unusual.

Savage said the federal government typically gets involved only when a state prosecution falters. It’s a topic Savage said he brought up during Friday’s meeting.

“It was a great opportunity for us to exchange our positions and why this is probably ... not a good policy to have at DOJ,” Savage said. “We had a chance to explain the difficulties of facing two guns at same time. I felt we were well-received.

“We covered the gamut, but I’m not sure it changes anything.”

Since the federal charges were filed, though, the state’s mistrial posed questions about whether a murder prosecution would ever be successful.

The primary federal charge against Slager, violating rights under the color of law, also carries up to life in prison. It is used often in alleged episodes of excessive police force.

“Hopefully,” Stewart said of the springtime trial, “we’ll get justice at that point.”