The Universal Education of Andrew Savage
Where did the South Carolina criminal defense attorney learn his most valuable lessons? Inside a New York City taxicab
Published in 2010 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
on March 30, 2010
Updated on March 31, 2010
When Andrew J. Savage, a former New York City cab driver “with a strong Yankee accent,” moved to South Carolina in the 1970s, he was one of few attorneys who didn’t spit in the courthouse spittoon. After a few years with the solicitor’s and attorney general’s offices, he opened Charleston’s Savage & Savage (his firm partner David Savage is of no relation). Meanwhile, he served nearly three decades as a judge advocate general with the U.S. Air Force Reserves, retiring in 1996 as a lieutenant colonel. Here, Savage talks with Super Lawyers about marching alongside civil rights protesters and traveling to Qatar to understand his most famous client, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, an al-Qaida sleeper agent.
What inspired you to pursue law?
I grew up in the Perry Mason era, so I planned to become a trial lawyer all through undergraduate school. In grammar school, friends of my parents would take me to night court in Kingston, N.Y., and I thought that was one of the biggest thrills of my life—seeing people and their problems and how they were handled.
What did your parents do?
My mother was a teacher. One of her famous students was boxing champion Floyd Patterson. She was in a special school 100 miles out of New York—in those days her students were called wayward children. My father was a civil engineer. He put his two brothers from the South Bronx through law school.
You attended Fordham University as an undergraduate. How did a Jesuit education affect your worldview?
I love when people ask me that question. My education was terrific, particularly at Fordham. It was not just the Jesuit education; it’s where it was. It wasn’t Georgetown, Boston College, Fairfield or Le Moyne. It was in the heart of the Bronx.
When did you become a cab driver in New York City?
My father died when I was in high school. He wasn’t somebody who did any preplanning, so my life changed dramatically when I was in high school. Financially it all fell on my mother. I worked a lot in undergraduate school, and one of the greatest jobs I ever had was driving a cab. In my office, the only diploma I have is my New York cab license.
Any close scares as a taxi driver?
The rule was, do not carry cash in your shirt pocket. People will reach in the window and rob you. We didn’t have air-conditioning. I carried all my money in a cigar box in the front seat. The great opportunity of being a cab driver was not the business side but the social side. The cab was like a confessional. It was a great experience to listen to the problems people would have, to know the frailties of human nature.
After college in New York, you launched your law career in South Carolina.
As a law student at the University of South Carolina, I worked for the Central Correctional Institute, where I eventually became a prosecutor for administrative hearings—when prisoners violated disciplinary rules within the institution. The inmates called them kangaroo courts, because the committees required a very low level of probable cause—to the point that maybe there was no such thing as a reasonable doubt.
After that, I served 90 days of active duty in the Army; then went to the solicitor’s office in Richland County, where I was hired to prosecute prison crime. I worked there for a few years before joining the attorney general’s office. [And later, the solicitor’s office in Charleston.]
Here I was, a kid from New York, it was the ’70s, and it was still “us” and “them.” I’d go to a rural county and be invited to the lunch at the jail with the judge and the sheriff. I knew I had made it when I was asked to say the blessing before the meal. In some of the courthouses, I was the only guy who didn’t use the spittoon during trial.
What types of cases did you handle as a prosecutor?
I prosecuted the “state trooper of the year” for embezzlement, murder cases, some drug cases, more street crime cases. I represented the state law enforcement division, which was dealing with all the civil rights matters and anti-nuclear weapons protests. I once walked 50 miles in a civil rights protest. It would have been 1979. I can’t remember if it was Ralph Abernathy who led that march— but it was a pretty big deal.
We’d march all day long and I’d spend the night going around to the different churches. I never stayed in the fortress of law enforcement. I always went to the other side, introduced myself and talked around to try to keep the tension from getting too high.
You switched sides when you founded Savage & Savage in 1981. Have you always focused on criminal defense?
In the beginning I tried to do a bit of general practice, only for economic reasons. But when my wife and I were awakened one morning with a phone call from Hawaii about a domestic dispute, I’d had enough. That was probably in 1987.
Infrequently I represent professionals whose criminal problems affect their license to practice. Doctors and lawyers are just like priests and rabbis. We’re all human.
How did you land your most famous case representing Ali al-Marri, an alleged al-Qaida sleeper agent?
Ali arrived in the U.S. on Sept. 10, 2001. He was arrested in Peoria, Ill., in Dec. 2001, as a material witness in the 9/11 case. He was transferred to the Southern District in New York and charged with a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001, after the FBI investigated him.
He bounced around in New York and eventually landed back in Illinois. When George W. Bush declared him an enemy combatant, he was transferred to a prison in South Carolina, the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig, right outside of Charleston. At that time I got the call.
It was right after the Hamdi v. Rumsfeld decision [which gave U.S. citizens designated as enemy combatants the right to challenge their detention] and the famous Sandra Day O’Connor statement that war doesn’t mean a blank check for the president.
So we challenged his detention in the 4th Circuit, which ruled in our favor on due process but against us on executive authority. We also filed a habeas petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. When Barack Obama assumed the presidency in January 2009, the Justice Department removed Ali from enemy combatant status and indicted him in the Central District of Illinois, which mooted the habeas case. Ali eventually pleaded guilty to one count [of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization].
Did you support the guilty plea?
A plea agreement was offered and we were given 72 hours to respond. We had not seen the evidence of that case; we had to make this decision in the blind. The client ultimately made the decision that he had spent enough time in the U.S. and he wanted to go home.
At the plea hearing, the courthouse was lined with military-dressed security armed with automatic weapons, all over the place, on the roofs, in the hallways, outside the doors. It was like an armed encampment. It was a very unbelievable scene for a United States courthouse.
Do you believe al-Marri is innocent?
There’s no question that he had some contact with some high-ranking members of al-Qaida, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. It was never clear, it was never presented, and it was agreed to by the government that he did not have a defined mission in the U.S. Was he here to do something? I think he was. I saw him as the Walmart greeter.
Interestingly, one of the witnesses for the defense was Sanford Seymour, former head of civilian security at the naval brig. Another witness was the former commander of the brig, John Pucciarelli, who is now at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. He testified in uniform with a chest full of ribbons—for us, not the government.
As part of your representation of al-Marri, you traveled to the Middle East.
It was right after the election in 2008. There was this huge disconnect between this person that I knew and the allegations. I pride myself, perhaps in error, in figuring people out. I never saw Ali as a person of danger.
So I went over to Doha in Qatar. I couldn’t meet with any of the women in his family, but I got to know all of his brothers. I went to the bank where he worked, talked to people in the community about him. There was still quite a gap between what the government was saying about what he had done or was capable of and what I knew about him.
One person can keep a secret, with two people it’s very hard to keep a secret, and with 100 people it’s impossible. He may have had some extreme beliefs, but I never thought that was the essence of him.
How would you describe your relationship with al-Marri?
I was Ali’s only link to the outside world. I had to have a top-secret security clearance. He had no contact with his family, no telephone calls. In the very beginning the guards in the institution weren’t allowed to talk to him. He was truly in complete isolation.
When you converse with people from the Middle East, you talk about their sons, their brother, their mother, everybody’s health, how your jobs are going. So it’s quite a ritual, and it’s very rude not to do that before getting down to the nitty-gritty of the case.
The first thing Ali would do is ask me about my grandson, who was born with a bad heart. He would never start a conversation without asking, “How is Andrew?” And if I said, “OK,” that’s not good enough. He’ll want to know the details—what’s his heart rate, how are the medications, are they going to operate again?
How has the case changed your career?
Every case educates you somewhat, but this was a universal education for me. When I went to Fordham I took Western civics; I didn’t take Middle Eastern affairs. There wasn’t a whole lot in my high school about the Middle East except the Crusades.
You also represented Youssef Megahed, an Egyptian college student who was stopped on a South Carolina highway and charged with connection to terrorism.
It was a case of racial profiling. If my client’s name were Murphy and not Megahed, he would not have been stopped. It was another situation where I dealt with the government officials from Egypt and the embassy in Washington, and it was really an eye-opener for me. Ultimately, Megahed’s case was picked up by the Department of Justice and transferred to Florida, where he was represented by other counsel and acquitted.
Do you plan to take more terrorism-related cases?
I wish that were a need that didn’t exist. Am I willing to take on unpopular causes? That never enters in the decision.
What’s another notable case you’ve handled?
Locally, I had a death penalty case with a 17-year-old back in 1989. It may be one of the most gut-wrenching cases I’ve ever had. The girl’s name was Mary Lynne French. Her father was an assistant chief of police in Summerville. The victim was the chief of police in Cottageville. Mary was charged with her boyfriend, who was 19 at the time. The case occurred the week right before Hurricane Hugo struck in Charleston, and it was quite an affair.
This was before the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles couldn’t face the death penalty. In the end, she was acquitted and her boyfriend pleaded guilty.
More recently, you represented Al Parish, the economist charged with running a $66 million Ponzi scheme. What was it like working with such a flamboyant personality?
Al was both interesting and challenging. He is extremely intelligent, and like so many of my other clients, has a goodness about him that others did not easily see. His colorful lifestyle, in conjunction with his bout with amnesia, created a credibility problem that was difficult to overcome. The atmosphere in the courtroom was more akin to a legal lynching than a dignified court proceeding. Boisterous insults were called out to both Al and me during the sentencing hearing. The atmosphere in the community and in the courtroom no doubt led to what I believe was an excessive sentence.
Is it tough to have empathy for some of your clients?
There have been very few clients that I have represented that I didn’t have personal empathy for. You may have legal empathy for them—you may feel they are disadvantaged in the criminal justice system for one reason or another. But it goes back to my Catholic education, back to boarding school, back to driving a cab, back to working in the house of corrections. The vast majority of people I represent are basically good people, who, under whatever circumstances—some they could control, some they couldn’t control—engaged in some misconduct. Sometimes it’s pretty bad misconduct. But I don’t focus on that.
You have said that philosophically you could go back to prosecuting cases today.
Above all, I believe in the law. The better the advocacy on both sides, the closer you get to justice. When the scales are tilted one way or the other, starting out or during the process, justice is not served.
Since you opened your firm, you’ve spent Sundays and holidays in the county jail.
Last time I did that was Christmas Day. [This interview occurred on Jan. 4.]