It’s so very tempting, especially to a new lawyer seeking to establish his brand. After all, the legal marketing gurus all say that if you don’t get out there and sell yourself, who will? So when Charleston, South Carolina lawyer David Aylor, admitted to practice law in 2006, saw his opening, he went for it.
Aylor was tapped to represent then-North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager, who shot and killed Walter Scott. It was, from all known information at the time, a good gig, a cop who had the usual justification for a kill. It would put Aylor in the local Post and Courier, sympathetic to his client, and add to his local brand as the “best law firm in Charleston.”
Aylor has quite a few videos on Youtube, reflecting a bit of a penchant for marketing and self-promotion. Of course, these came well before his representation of Slager. Perhaps he got the Slager case because of them. Perhaps if he had known what would follow, he might have chosen a different brand.
A mildly high profile local case is the sort of thing a young lawyer dreams of. A hugely high profile national case is, well, more than a young lawyer is prepared to handle. The shit hit the fan when a video emerged showing Slager executing Walter Scott. Until then, Aylor gave the standard comment:
‘This is a very tragic event for all of the families,” Aylor said. “I believe once the community hears all the facts of this shooting, they’ll have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding this investigation.”
Somebody gained a better understanding, and it wasn’t Aylor. He was left holding the bag, playing the mouthpiece, spouting inane and silly words that reflect his client’s lies to him, and his embrace of those lies. The feel-good quote only works when there’s no video to prove the killer has a fool for a lawyer.
It’s hard to blame Aylor for being sucked in by Slager’s lie. Clients lie sometimes. And just as a more experienced lawyer might ask the client whether he really wants his lawyer to be the stupidest guy in the room, the less experienced lawyer might not question whether his client is being forthright. He may rely on his client’s denials. But then, he might also take those denials and do the one thing that commits them to posterity: shoot off his mouth.
When the New York Times broke the video, Aylor’s world spun on its axis. Two critical things happened simultaneously. The first was that Aylor realized that he had gone out on a limb for Slager, and the limb just broke. The second was that every media outlet in the nation came calling for comment, for anything they could put on the evening news. If you’ve never enjoyed the swarm of media gnats, it’s overwhelming.
Aylor then made a decision and an announcement. He was no longer Slager’s lawyer.
Many condemned Aylor for both abandoning Slager like a rat from a sinking ship, and issuing this statement. While the statement was inartful, my initial reaction was more charitable, as the deluge of media calls must have been overwhelming, and Aylor might have sought to end the shit storm by telling the media to leave him out of it.
Was there some better way to handle this? Of course. Don’t abandon your client just because the tide turned on you and threatens to take your sweet gig as good cop defender and turn it into lying, murdering cop lawyer. Hey, that’s the job, kid. Welcome.
But more importantly, there was no announcement Aylor could make that wouldn’t scream, “my former client is guilty as sin, and I’m jumping ship to get away from this killer.” This was the time to say, “no comment,” and walk away, as there was nothing good to be said that wouldn’t harm his client, Slager. That duty, not to do harm to a client, extends to former clients as well.
But even so, this inappropriate press release could be chalked up to naiveté, compounded by the interest he was ill-prepared to handle. Poor judgment, for sure, but understandable. What was not understandable was what came next.
What could Aylor possibly have been thinking when the Daily Beast called and said, “talk to us, bro. It’s gonna be sweet!” The only rational conclusion is that he saw his 15 minutes of fame coming to an end, and wanted to get his brand in there before the name David Aylor disappeared forever. This was an opportunity to spin his involvement from lawyer for the devil to good guy who wouldn’t be caught dead standing beside the murderous liar.
Aylor wasn’t unaware of his ethical duty not to give away his client’s confidences. He thought, apparently, that he could both do the interview and pretend not to skirt his ethical obligations.
All I can say is that the same day of the discovery of the video that was disclosed publicly, I withdrew as counsel immediately. Whatever factors people want to take from that and conclusions they want to make, they have the right to do that. But I can’t confirm from an attorney-client standpoint what the reason is.
Pretty crafty, huh? I cannot tell you what I’ve just told you. Exactly what “factors” could anyone possibly take from that other than the fact that you, Slager’s lawyer at the time, have decided that the video conclusively proves his guilt, as well as your client lied to your face?
When you were representing Slager, you said, “I believe once the community hears all the facts of this shooting, they’ll have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding this investigation.”
That was my belief at the time, that’s why I made that statement.
Liar, liar, liar client. So what happens when you as lawyer are foolish enough to take your client’s denial of guilt at face value?
One part is when you have a high-profile case, on behalf of your client and at the time due to their encouragement or what they’re directing you to do, you make public statements based on the information you have. It’s common in any type of case when you’re a defense attorney that any kind of information that you’re provided is limited throughout as far as what information you’re given from your client compared to when you actually get to discovery or the evidence, moving all the way to the point of more additional evidence or witnesses coming out as the case progresses.
No, David, no. No one forces you to rush out to the spotlight and make a statement before you have a clue what evidence exists against your client, and no one forces you to rush out to the spotlight a second time when you’re exposed as the fool who shot off his mouth.
At first, the spotlight seems warm and alluring to the lawyer, a chance to get his brand out in public and make a name for himself as the kind of lawyer who can handle the big time. But stand in the spotlight long enough and it starts to burn.
David Aylor’s client was horribly wrong to shoot. So too was David Aylor.
Do you know whether Officer Slager knew someone was taping the incident?
I can’t say what my client did and didn’t tell me, but I can tell you that I was not aware of the video…
No, you can’t tell the Daily Beast. You can’t tell anyone. That’s what it means to be a criminal defense lawyer. David Aylor may get an extra minute or two of “fame,” but it won’t be of the sort a young lawyer would want. If he’s remembered, it will be as the young lawyer who couldn’t stop himself from shooting off his mouth after his client was exposed as the killer cop who shot down Walter Scott.