Hidden among a handful of family photos in Andy Savage’s office sits a small, wood picture frame on a corner table. In it rests a copy of Savage’s 1972 New York City cabbie license.
“It’s the only diploma I have in my office,” said Savage. “You won’t see a high school diploma, a college diploma, law school diploma, bar, anything.”
The New York cabbie title is but a dot on Savage’s resume, a little-known fact, but a prevailing explanation as to why and how Savage became Charleston’s most-recognized and successful defense attorney.
“That was great training for me – seriously,” said Savage. “What I deal with essentially is people, their feelings, their emotions. People in cabs have crisis too and on the way to the airport they may tell you their whole life story. If you listen, people tell you the most intimate details of their lives. It really helped me learn the minds and emotions of people. 31 years after graduating law school I’m still being helped by what I learned driving a cab.”
Savage has since mastered the art of communication, and in his profession, that means interacting and understanding addicts, criminals, and a variety of interesting and delinquent characters.
“The most difficult cases in getting to that core are the addiction cases,” said Savage. “You wouldn’t believe who we’ve represented in drug addiction cases – politicians, clerics, rabbis, doctors, lawyers, it’s not who you think, some street kid on the East Side. It’s much more prevalent than that … housewives, educators, nurses, the list just goes on and on. Those alcohol and drug addiction are really tough to cut through.”
Not a sexy profession
Despite his reputation, Savage’s work does not have the sex appeal one might think. The high profile cases that define Savage’s public image are just a small slice of a larger, grittier daily push through reality. Believe it or not, Savage prefers it that way. In fact, his practice is designed that way.
“The law practice is not a business enterprise,” said Savage. “You get a DUI, you pay a lawyer $500 and you get off. I don’t view the practice that way. It’s more encompassing. If someone comes to me with a legal problem, I want to see what that legal problem is a manifestation of, because I don’t want return business – and I mean that.
“The goal is to help them with their legal problem but the primary goal is to help them with their health. Whether it’s a drug addiction specialist, whatever, there has to be a component of that or we don’t want to represent you.”
Savage said in cases where addiction and behavioral issues are involved, representation on the legal level – or the “legal engagement” – only exists if the client agrees to submit to necessary psychological evaluations, drug screenings and post-legal mental health programs.
“I don’t recall in recent years a client that I haven’t sent to a psychiatrist or psychologist because it’s not just what I can do, it’s what these experts can do to assist me and assist the client on where we are,” Savage said.
But that exercise often uncovers deeper wounds. Addiction is littered with baggage: anxiety, anger and depression. Each addiction comes with its own unique hurdles. Some Savage understands, even indentifies with. Some he doesn’t. Some he’d prefer to avoid altogether.
“You get down to their essence,” said Savage. “They’re human beings, and what I try to do, is make an attachment, a communication attachment. Sometimes that’s very difficult. There have been people that I’ve represented that it was hard for me to represent them but I had to overcome that to represent them and represent them well.”
The legal field can make anyone jaded, if you see it, hear it and live it long enough. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. Compassion is replaced by callousness. You can lose your hopes, your passion, your beliefs and your soul. Savage knows that – now.
But he had no idea in 1972, the year he joined the Air Force, the significance of the decision. Calling it “one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life,” Savage again connected the dots, tracing his past to his present. It all makes sense – now. His military training, much like his summer job as a cabbie, paid dividends.
“This business can be skeptical about human behavior, if you allow it too,” Savage said. “Doing what I do all day long I’ve gotta have something to keep me grounded. The Air Force kept me balanced. It kept me grounded.”
But Savage has learned to compartmentalize those cases, instead focusing on his legal responsibility. “Everybody I represent is a human – everyone, and they all have human frailties, some worse than others,” Savage explained. “Some were within their control and some were out of their control; by birth, by education, by employment, by bad luck, by addiction, whatever that is, the moving forces in their life.”
How does Savage communicate with those suffering addiction?
“Sometimes, I don’t,” said Savage. “Sometimes it’s a loss. In these cases you have to go into knowing there’s going to be failure and failure is not a word attorney’s like, but you have to accept that there are going to be cases where they fall down. People I’ve represented have literally gone back to jail because they didn’t follow through on those commitments.”
It sounds great on paper, and even better when it comes in a serious tone from Savage, but leaves you wondering if it falls flat into the “too-good-to-be-true” category. But Savage passed the litmus test as he pointed to a large corkboard above his computer. On it, dozens of photos, all past clients –addicts, criminals, you name it – all who have overcome their personal demons, persevered and become productive citizens with Savage’s assistance personally and professionally. It’s a testimony to Savage’s work.
The addict, those who fall to DUI or drug charges, come in all shapes, sizes, colors and professions. But often, they are private citizens, who fly under the media’s radar, falling short of the high profile clients that Savage has represented – like Al Parish.
Parish, the economist and former Charleston Southern University professor, is currently charged with 10 counts of investment fraud and has been the headline story for local media over the last six weeks. His legal defense team: Andy Savage.
The media frenzy and public intrigue have centered on Parish’s assets. A long list of exotic collectibles from Red Skelton paintings, Jimi Hendrix guitars, gold-encrusted watches, expensive Montblanc pens, cartoon art and comic books.
Savage scoffs at the public’s curiosity regarding Parish’s private, eccentric lifestyle, exotic collectibles and claim of amnesia. His legal mind refuses to buy into the ancillary elements presented by the media in the Parish case. “I’m a very skeptical guy when it comes to that,” said Savage, “because I know what the public is interested in.”
The claims of amnesia by Parish have been another unique obstacle for Savage. “I’m not a physician but it appears to me a lot of his medical problems were induced by fear, what’s to come, and the stress,” said Savage, when asked about Parish’s health.
As Parish battles to regain his mental health, Savage finds himself in a difficult situation as the highly anticipated court case draws near. “Where I wanted to be three weeks ago, I haven’t started yet,” said Savage. “Next week I’ll be four weeks behind … and this isn’t good because I tend to think – now I haven’t reviewed all the evidence and I haven’t been given any evidence by the government – but I tend to think there were other professionals were involved in some capacity, I just haven’t figured out what capacity yet.
“I’m not saying that excuses his conduct,” continued Savage, “but he may not be the sole person responsible for this.”
Parish’s unstable medical condition has not helped his defense. When asked if Parish has been any help to himself in regards of communicating any information in preparation for his own defense, Savage answered, “No, none, not a bit, zero.”
Andy Savage still gets butterflies when he goes to trial.
It wouldn’t be such a surprise if the Charleston defense attorney were a newbie. But that’s far from the case. Savage is a 31-year veteran with a long, successful track record.
In 1981 Savage went into private practice. Soon after, everything changed when he was hired to represent a prominent local banker accused of child molestation. Within days Savage’s face and name were plastered all over Lowcountry televisions sets and in the newspaper.
“That case taught me a lot of lessons, least of which was this pre-judgment by the press,” said Savage. “I’m not knocking the press when I say this, but its just fact. It was an unfounded charge. Not only was it unfounded, they identified who the perpetrator was and it wasn’t him.
“Particularly in child molestation (cases), when they throw that charge against you, it stinks and it sticks. And no matter how innocent you are, you may get the sticker off but the stink stays.”
When his client was acquitted of the charges, Savage took it upon himself to see the same public justice was given to his client, a reversal of the public smearing his name and reputation took. In defense, Savage spoke out, contacting the media.
“There is an assumption of guilt and when he was acquitted it was important for me to get the word out that somebody else was charged, because the newspaper didn’t do that,” Savage continued. “They dropped it somewhere behind some obituary inside the paper.”
The court of public opinion tagged Savage’s client guilty – as charged. The front page media headlines and the “assumption of guilt” frustrated Savage. It also gave him a better understanding of the power of the media.
Savage believes that case, followed by a steady string of high profile murder cases, was what propelled him into the media spotlight.
“It gives you instant credibility,” said Savage. “Not celebrity but credibility. Because if I’ve been in someone’s home when they’re eating breakfast or dinner and I’m on the news, and they allow me to be with them during the most intimate times of their lives, in their homes … those people come up to you on the street – and that’s credibility. So when they go into the courtroom as jurors, I got a leg up, because they know me. In their minds, there’s that relationship, so there’s a credibility that arises from that familiarity which I think is helpful.”
In 1994, Savage’s media presence reached new heights. It was the year of the O.J. Simpson trial. Savage found himself part of a daily segment on Live 5 News giving his expert legal opinion on the most-watched legal proceeding in American history.
Andy Savage was becoming a household name in the Lowcountry.
The experience was an education for Savage, who recalls being terrified when the cameras were on. “I used to sit on Talkback and Warren Peper would interview me. When I’d get up there’d be a puddle of nervous sweat,” explained Savage, mimicking the way he’d fold his hands on the desk. “Honest to God there was. I could stand in front of juror’s everyday and it didn’t bother me a bit. But that camera, I was absolutely terrified.”
As the Simpson trial dragged on, the work began taking its toll on Savage. He realized the media commitment was beginning to dominate his time, while the line between lawyer and media expert were beginning to blur. “It was exhaustive,” said Savage. “I couldn’t run a practice and continue that. The other thing is I didn’t want to be identified as a TV guy, I’m a lawyer.”
Defending the so-called enemy
Ali Al-Mari graduated from the University of Illinois in the Spring of 2001. After a brief celebration in his homeland of Saudi Arabia, Al-Mari, his wife and five children boarded a plane bound for the United States on September 10, 2001.
Within 24 hours Al-Mari would morph from American citizen to terrorist threat. After the events of 9-11 Al-Mari was on a long list of Arab-Americans under the microscope of the United States government. Government security and a general sense of paranoia in the States wreaked havoc on Al-Mari’s actions.
In December 2001 he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement on criminal charges of suspicious credit card activity. The government confiscated Al-Mari’s computer and found suspicious transactions. Ironically, he was arrested and transported to New York and was housed just blocks from where the World Trade Center terrorist attacks unfolded.
In June 2003, when the case returned to Illinois, Al-Mari was scheduled to appear for a motions hearing on the “suppression of evidence.” According to Savage, just as the hearing was set to convene, the charges were “dismissed with prejudice” and Al-Mari was transported to Charleston and declared an enemy combatant.
Savage speculates about what actually took place. One theory involves admitted 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Muhammed – or “KSM” as Savage refers to him. Savage believes Muhammed’s de-briefing may be the key to Al-Mari’s case.
“KSM recently testified at his military tribunal that he was tortured,” theorized Savage. “KSM has admitted expansive misconduct on his own part, terrorist conduct on his own part. He’s also retracted information that he said about somebody unknown. Based on what’s he retracted and what Al Mari’s been accused of I assume, but I don’t know this, that KSM is saying he lied under torture about this guy [Al-Mari]. Which is very important and it’s why I think he’s not charged. It’s all speculation, I don’t know what happened.”
To date, no evidence has been produced to officially charge Al-Mari, who is being detained under the controversial Military Commission Act of 2006. According to the written law, the President has absolute power to imprison a person indefinitely without being charged, in essence, removing the Constitutional due process right of habeas corpus.
By their actions, not documentation, the United States government believes Al-Mari is a member of Al Qaeda, making him a threat to the country. But without evidence, no one knows what to think of Al-Mari.
The closest person to a true understanding would be Savage. No one, including family, has communicated with Al-Mari more than Savage since he was originally detained five-and-a-half years ago in Illinois.
The obvious question now surfaces: Does Savage believe Al-Mari is a terrorist?
“I don’t know,” said Savage. “That term terrorist defines a lot of ground, it’s so expansive. I can tell you my relationship with him is very good. I trust him. I think he’s telling me the truth. I have no reason to doubt him. I’ve seen him through five-and-a-half years of isolation and solitary confinement. I’m his only contact.”
Savage is quick to point out his concerns. “Because he’s been isolated – and that term is important to me – solitary means locked up in your own cell, at least you have a guy next to you or a guard comes and talks to you or you speak to family on the phone,” Savage explains. “He’s had no contact with his family, the outside world, except Andy Savage, the other lawyers and the ICRC, since he’s been locked up as an enemy combatant. The fear I have is that of Stockholm syndrome, he’s identified me as his lifelink to the world and I worry about that.”
Savage claims Al-Mari was tortured “in a subtle way” while in isolation. Unlike the psychological torture that accompanies isolation, Al-Mari was “sensory-deprived,” a deliberate, almost slow motion form of mind game.
“The guards had their military uniforms covered in tape so he couldn’t read their names, he had the earmuffs and goggles everywhere he went, in his cell he didn’t have anything soft, it was either concrete or metal, from 10pm-5am he got a thin mattress to sleep on, no sheets, they turned the temperature down, he was cold at night, he was shaking the whole time, the guards would take away his toilet paper and shut off his water,” explained Savage.
“They put a fan outside his cell, they’d turn it on and it was driving him crazy. Not from the wind – but from the noise. He got so bad, when they were tarring the roof he thought in his mind they had some kind of gas they were putting on him because of the smell. The psychiatrist and psychologist were telling us this was all part of isolation, how you start to go wacky.”
The description of torture prompts Savage to rebuffs any potential speculation of his clients handling. “I am absolutely, 100% convinced that the staff at the brig is terrific,” said Savage. “The torture, if you will, that I described was not at their direction. They were carrying out the DIA’s intention to break him. As a guy who was in the Air Force I can’t tell you how proud I am, not on the level of representing Al-Mari, but on a different human level that I was a member of the military. They have treated him over the last two years with absolute respect.”
Savage first met Ali Al-Mari in October 2004. Al-Mari had been in isolation for 16 months.
“When we went to see him for the first time, three lawyers went and I call it ‘the three-butt wide room,” Savage described. The three attorneys sat on a small steel stool, Savage sat to the right, his right butt cheek off the side, hip against the wall. The second attorney sat centered on the stool and the third to the left with his right butt cheek off the seat and hip to the wall.
The attorney’s were de-briefed before they entered the room. They were given specific parameters about what they could discuss with Al-Mari. No one was allowed to take notes. Savage sat under the electric eye of security, every move and sound was being recorded by a Defense Intelligence Analyst (DIA) representative monitored the conversation.
Al-Mari, separated by tinted plexi-glass, untouchable and unseen, sat just feet away from his lawyers. “He’s shackled, belly-chained and chained to the floor, so there’s no movement,” recalls Savage. “It was the first time he’d met with his lawyers. It was a real strange experience for us.”
In 31 years of practice Savage sees the outcome of the case as having more encompassing ramifications than any other case he’s worked on in the past. “He’s an enemy combatant, the only one in the United States that’s housed in the United States,” said Savage. “It’s a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very important case, not only legally but for America, who we are and what we stand for.”
Since that first meeting in October 2004 the relationship between Savage and Al-Mari has evolved into a friendship – or as much of a friendship as one could imagine between attorney and client.
“I know this is going to sound very strange to you, and you asked me about communications, you wouldn’t believe the communication I have with him,” said Savage. “You wouldn’t believe it. The concept of him is of a terrorist. I have developed a very unique relationship with him as the people at the brink will tell you.”
Savage begins choosing his words with extra care when describing his interaction with his client.
“I have to be very careful about that,” he says. “It’s a very fine line and I’ve talked openly with the other lawyers about it. You have to remain objective. I have to accept, in terms of my dealings with Al-Mari, that the United States government thinks he’s a member of Al Quada. If I think of him as a friendly guy that’s just been mistakenly arrested, then I’m not going to be a very good lawyer. I’ve got to keep focused on the fact that his legal problem is that he’s an identified illegal Al Quada operative and I’ve got to separate and compartmentalize that compassion for him.
“I have gotten to know him as a human being that I never anticipated,” said Savage. “I would never, ever have would have projected that relationship. Now I have to be careful, because I don’t want to be a fool and I’d like to think I’m not being made a fool.”
Savage admits he slips occasionally, drifting from attorney to friend when dealing with Al-Mari. “When I go out there we don’t talk about his legal case,” said Savage. “We talk about family, we talk about religion, we talk about Mecca … I am his lawyer but 99.9% of what I talk about is not legal matters, so that’s where you’ve gotta be careful.”
Savage parses his personal and professional feelings on the Al-Mari subject, in a self reassuring way, explaining and justifying his feeling out loud.
“As an American, as a member of a larger world community, it helps me feel better about the world because if he is who he says he is and he is, don’t take me wrong, but that makes me feel better,” he said. “That means no matter how crazy the world is, how bad this war is, no matter how many people get killed on either side, there’s a breakthrough. Now that may seem very idealistic but if Ali Al-Mari and I can communicate and enjoy each other’s company and he would come to my table, at my house if he were able or I could go to his house, then nothing is impossible. I’m not sure that’s realistic but in my little narrow view of the world, I’m comforted by that.”