S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, July 15, 2007
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/07.0715.prosec.htm


Changes may create more prosecutorial fairness
By Andy Brack, Publisher

JULY 15, 2007 - - In a state criminal justice system clogged by tens of thousands of warrants that eventually are dismissed or plea-bargained, there's got to be a better way of dispensing justice that is fairer, more equitable and more efficient.

Seventh Circuit Solicitor Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg is making the rounds with facts, figures, charts and numbers to support his case that South Carolina's prosecution system needs serious reform.

"Let's come up with a system that inspires more confidence in the citizenry on both sides of the political equation and socioeconomic equation," said Gowdy, who chairs the S.C. Prosecution Commission, a state-backed criminal justice advisory group. "It might sound hokey, but I've said it before: The lady holding the scales is not blind. She is blindfolded. She can see but she chooses to be economically-blind, color-blind and political persuasion-blind."

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What's got in Gowdy's craw is the fact that thousands of warrants are issued every year in South Carolina … and thousands are dismissed for reasons like insufficient evidence, pleading guilty to other charges, witness cooperation or because judges threw out cases.

"The majority of cases dismissed in South Carolina are dismissed because of insufficient evidence or the prosecutor's perception of insufficient evidence," he said.

That causes everyday people to be a little suspect about the criminal justice system, he said.

In South Carolina, there have been more than 100,000 criminal cases filed in the state every year for the last 10 years - excluding cases of drunken driving and domestic violence, both of which add even more to the caseload. Some 54 percent of cases disposed of in the state last year were non-convictions - either dismissals or not-guilty verdicts, Gowdy said. Another 38 percent were convictions.

Drilling down into the numbers highlights how the system is clogged.


Gowdy

Gowdy said law enforcement officials in his Spartanburg-Cherokee County district issued about 9,000 warrants last year. About 46 percent were dismissed. Of the ones remaining, about 95 percent were guilty pleas. About 100 cases go to jury trial every year.

"In a perfect week, we can take five to seven cases to trial, leaving 145 for another week or another type of resolution," he said.

Gowdy's analogy is a garden hose in which that the front end is flooded "wide smack open" with cases, while the back end is "hopelessly deadlocked." He makes a good case for several suggestions that state lawmakers would have to consider to even the flow of cases:

  • Prosecutorial review. Gowdy suggested if prosecutors were to review law enforcement's warrants before they were issued, problems with cases would be evident earlier in the process. In turn, fewer warrants would be issued, which should save time and money. This team process is how the federal system works and it tends to be more efficient with warrants than the state's system.

  • Magistrate training. In South Carolina, magistrates, who issue most warrants, are appointed in a political process. They're also not required to be lawyers. If they had more training - specifically on probable cause and other complex issues - there likely would be better-quality warrants in the system. Gowdy said the state also should consider requiring a new magistrate selection review process to improve the quality of magistrates.

  • Prosecutorial remand. Prosecutors would tend to have fewer dismissals if they were able to remand bad cases back to law enforcement agencies, as in the federal system, Gowdy said.

  • Dockets. He said he believed judges, not prosecutors, should run dockets, which might create more efficiencies. (He added his fellow solicitors likely would be opposed to this suggestion.)

  • Resources. He also said judges, prosecutors and public defenders could use more resources to manage their case loads.

South Carolina's judicial system does need to be fair. For citizens to have more confidence in it, state lawmakers ought to look at Gowdy's ideas - particularly those on more magistrate training and prosecutorial review - with fresh eyes.

You can reach Andy Brack, publisher of SC Statehouse Report, at brack@statehousereport.com.

Recent commentary


226 years ago: Battle of Parker's Ferry stopped Tories

During the summer of 1781, Tories roved the countryside surrounding Charleston. Patriot colonel William Harden commanded a dwindling militia force south of the Edisto River and requested assistance from Brigadier General Francis Marion to counter this threat.

Arriving at the village of Round O on Aug. 22, 1781, Marion set out to gather intelligence. He learned that a force of 100 Tories under Colonel William "Bloody Bill" Cunningham was assembling on the banks of the Pon Pon River (present-day Edisto River) to join a larger body of British and Hessian regulars and Loyalist militiamen. Marion quickly prepared an ambush to prevent the juncture.

WEEKLY EXCERPTS

S.C. Statehouse Report has partnered with USC Press to provide readers with a weekly historical excerpt about the state. Each excerpt, which is used with permission and not for republication, is taken from The South Carolina Encyclopedia, a 1,077-page book published in 2006 with entries by almost 600 contributors and edited by noted historian Walter Edgar. We hope you enjoy this new feature.

On August 30, the patriot force took position in the thick woods of a swamp about 40 yards from the road and within a mile of Parker's Ferry. ... [Major Thomas] Fraser's men galloped blindly into the trap. As the British cavalrymen came abreast of the American position, they received several volleys of fire. British losses were estimated at about 25 killed and 80 wounded, with minimal harm to Marion's force. This small but effective engagement checked the British cavalry and put a stop to the marauding of the Tories so that they never posed a threat in the region again.

-- Entry by Samuel K. Fore, The South Carolina Encyclopedia

lighter side
Milking it

Another great cartoon by Bill McLemore:

feedback
7/12: Domestic violence laws may be used wrongly

To Statehouse Report:

I happened upon your article on criminal domestic violence published in September of 2005. South Carolina is diligent in efforts to add expert solicitors to prosecute criminal domestic violence while the state is clearly lacking in public defenders with the same expertise. Family Court cases in South Carolina constitute approximately 75 percent of all cases and 80 percent of those cases involve criminal domestic violence in some form.

Rarely publicized, criminal domestic violence is the number one weapon that women use to gain child custody advantages. When judges set bond restrictions, they generally eliminate any contact with the "victim" and any children, with or without any third party evidence. A defendant is thus presumed guilty and punished until trial. That period of time could be (and is) the entire infancy of a child.

Current South Carolina laws are not constitutional as expressly covered in the Bill of Rights. The foundation of "FREEDOM" should never be discounted. Drop the word Domestic out of "criminal domestic violence." You need evidence of at least "criminal violence" for an arrest.

Recommendation for SC: Unless there is clearly evidence of "criminal violence," there should be no arrest. If the officer remains concerned for the well-being of the "victim," empower the officer to issue a one- or two-day restraining order on the spot.

Spouse beaters deserve what they get when the evidence supports but recognize that this law is used many times for a very different reason: CUSTODY.

-- Marty Hicks, Mount Pleasant, SC

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Debate over coal warms
From the paid-subscriber issue of Statehouse Report

JUNE 29, 2007 -- Suddenly, a fuel source derided for so long for its ecological and environmental horrors has seemingly become America's best friend. Coal, the other white meat. Coal, it's what's for dinner. Coal, we do power generation right.

And now, Santee Cooper, which provides power to 20 electricity cooperatives and all 46 counties across the state, is beginning a permitting process to build a 600-megawatt coal-burning plant in Florence County to meet the state's growing energy needs.

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Excerpts from The South Carolina Encyclopedia are published with permission and copyrighted 2006 by the Humanities Council SC. Excerpts were edited by Walter Edgar and published by the University of South Carolina Press. No republication is allowed.