CHARLESTON, S.C. — A dozen boxes stacked up next to a window in Andrew Savage’s downtown office are labeled “al-Marri” — that is, Ali Saleh Mohammad Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari man who was accused of being an al-Qaeda sleeper agent.
Sitting on a bookshelf are three Emmy awards that he won for his cable television show, “The Savage Report.” And on a wooden console behind his desk is a long slim box, a gift of thanks for his work on the al-Marri case. He opens it to reveal a polished sword and asks, “You saw what it says on the cover, right?”
“State of Qatar,” the seal read.
And then there is client Michael Slager, a former North Charleston police officer who was charged with murder in the shooting death of a black man, Walter Scott, after a routine traffic stop just 15 miles from here.
Savage, a chatty 67-year old Irish-Catholic transplant from New York, is used to the reaction to the long list of controversial personalities he defends in court.
The typical response to his work for Slager, according to Savage, goes something like this: “He’s the one that represented that white son of a b****.”
But now Savage is playing a new role: comforter and counselor to three families devastated by the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday.
This isn’t business, Savage said, but like most things in his life, it is about the law.
Both the Walter Scott case and the Emanuel massacre have become signposts on this country’s long road to racial reconciliation.
But Savage doesn’t look at it that way. Call it “compartmentalizing” as he often does, or call it naïveté, Savage is able to hold both weighty matters in his mind simultaneously with no problem. Or at least, so he said.
“I’ve been kind of down in the dumps,” Savage said, his eyes growing weary for a moment.
On Wednesday two people he considers dear friends were killed in that church basement: 26-year old Tywanza Sanders and Ethel Lance, 70.
A third friend, Felicia Sanders, survived. He recounts her harrowing story methodically: She hid under a table, taken for dead, and also shielding her 11-year-old granddaughter as the carnage unfolded around her.
With his last vestiges of life, Sanders’s son, Ty, reached out his hand to Susie Jackson, 87, his great grand aunt who had also been shot, and touched her hair, Savage said.
Felicia “stayed under the table and realized he was gone,” Savage said.
For them, he has also taken on more benign tasks: corralling enough food from the ranks of his former clients to feed 50 or so people so that the families can grieve, fielding questions from the media, and managing the influx of generosity from Charlestonians.
To understand how Savage can wear both hats — counselor to victims of a hateful crime, and defender of a man accused of shooting another in the back during the course of his duties as a law enforcement officer — is to understand a little bit about this place called Charleston.
“That’s not me, that’s the blood that flows through this community,” Savage said.
There is, according to Savage, a deep sense of “human feeling” here. Though not as “sufficiently racially integrated,” it is a place driven by interpersonal connections, he said.
And then there is the law. Savage’s connection to the Sanders and the Lances came by virtue this office early on in his career. It was also driven by a personal mantra.
“I’m not a priest, I’m not a rabbi, I’m a lawyer,” Savage said. “My role is to help people in crisis, and I don’t pre-judge the crisis that they’re in.”
“We have always committed a significant amount of pro-bono work to people who are overwhelmed by the criminal justice system,” he adds.
Savage doesn’t like talk about what legal cases brought these families into his life, seeking instead to focus on their recovery from this latest, awful tragedy. But he said that as a result, they have shared a “bond” that has lasted decades.
Ex-cop Michael Slager was also in crisis, Savage noted. And when his family called asking for help, he knew it was a case he had to take.
“Everyone who is accused is entitled to a fair defense,” Savage noted. “Slager was abandoned by the criminal justice system. He was thrown to the wolves.”
“What I try to focus on is the law and the law that I deeply believe should apply to everyone,” Savage said.
Sitting in his office on a quiet street in downtown Charleston Monday, Savage, bespeckled, jacketless and sporting a typical crisp white shirt, speaks with a drawl.
Even after living here for decades, like so many others in Charleston, Savage is from “afar” as non-Charlestonians were at one time called.
He has (mostly) lost his Yankee accent and in the last 45 years in South Carolina has become a staple of political and social life here.
He spent time working as a cab driver in New York City and as warden in a South Carolina jail to help pay his way through law school in the 1970’s, an experience that he says deepened his sense of obligation to the accused.
“He has a real sense of social justice that you don’t see from many people these days,” his wife, Cheryl Savage, noted.
The short tour of Savage’s office ends in the lobby where a colorful mural depicting a milieu of local characters, including Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley and North Charleston Mayor R. Keith Summey, both of whom he considers close friends.
Later this year he’ll face Charleston County Prosecutor Scarlet A. Wilson, another friend, who will bring the case against Slager. She’s an excellent prosecutor, Savage says, he’s never won a case against her yet.
Wilson will also prosecute 21-year-old Dylann Roof, the man accused of killing Sanders, Lance, Jackson and six others at Emanuel AME.
With more than enough work to keep him busy, Savage always seems to be taking on another project, each more high-profile than the last. Perhaps this man, who often refers to himself as “Andy,” will go where there is news to be made.
Asked whether he might have considered representing Roof in court if his friends had not been among the victims, Savage said he would not.
That case, Savage says is open and shut — a “vicious, awful, horrific murder.”
He is confident that the prosecutor is “going to ensure that the proper evidence is collected in the proper manner to secure a conviction in this case. I know that,” Savage said.
Life imprisonment, he explains, is “the greater punishment” than death for Roof.
“Every facet of his life would be controlled by a race he hates,” Savage said, noting that African Americans make up a majority of South Carolina’s inmate population and prison employees. “To me that is a perfect punishment.”