Only two weeks before he became embroiled in a shocking double homicide investigation – one which has attracted international attention and thrust him in the middle of a huge conflict of interest controversy – South Carolina fourteenth circuit solicitor Duffie Stone dropped the ball on a big murder trial within his Lowcountry judicial circuit.
Stone’s handling – or rather mishandling – of a May 2021 murder trial has been seized upon by critics as further evidence of his unfitness to handle potential prosecutions related to the high-profile “Murdaugh Murders,” which have dominated headlines in the Palmetto State (and beyond) over the last four weeks.
Oh, and that is before we even address the glaring conflicts created by Stone’s proximity to the powerful Lowcountry family at the center of the saga …
But few know the story of 77-year-old Hardeeville, S.C. volunteer fire chief Ernest Martin Stevens.
Shortly before 8:45 a.m. EDT on Thursday, August 10, 2017, Stevens was gunned down by 28-year-old Devon Dunham of Hardeeville as the former sat in the driver’s seat of his Ford F-150 truck in a shopping center parking lot near his home. Specifically, Dunham emptied all eight rounds of his nine millimeter handgun into Stevens truck – hitting him four times – allegedly because Stevens refused to let him use the truck to move some of his things out of a nearby hotel room.
Stevens died of his wounds …
In addition to indisputable forensic evidence, Dunham confessed to the shooting – which took place in broad daylight in the middle of this small town of approximately 8,000 located just east of the Georgia-South Carolina border off of Interstate 95.
Talk about a definitional open and shut case, correct?
Apparently not …
Stone tried the case personally – signifying its significance – but jurors took only two hours to find Dunham not guilty of both charges.
Wait … what? Not guilty?
Um … the guy confessed.
The Dunham verdict made the rounds on national conservative news sites, stoking (understandable) outrage. Meanwhile, Stone – who has been accused by local law enforcement leaders of cherry picking “slam dunk” cases for trial (while accumulating a huge backlog of other, less cut-and-dried cases) – was left to trot out his spokesperson to try and explain what happened to local media.
“All witnesses said there had been a brief verbal exchange between Dunham and Stevens, but it was not clear exactly what all was said, but witnesses did say Dunham had said, ‘I need your truck,’” Stone’s spokesperson told reporter Shellie Murdaugh of The Jasper County Sun Times.
(Click to view)
(Via: Jasper County)
There are reports that Stevens – who is white – used a racial slur in refusing to let Dunham (above) use his truck, but all attempts to interject race into the trial were shut down by the presiding judge.
According to court observers I spoke with earlier this week, one serious problem with the prosecution of this case is that Stone presented jurors with only two charges agains Dunham – a murder rap and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Because the two charges were linked to each other, once jurors reached the determination that Dunham did not murder Stevens with “malice aforethought” – a.k.a. premeditation – the weapons charge was automatically voided.
Given that Dunham’s killing of Stevens did not appear to be premeditated, many wondered why Stone did not offer jurors other options beyond the first degree murder rap. In other words, why did he not present them with a charge which omitted premeditation as one of the requirements for a conviction?
Alas, we will never know …
My news outlet has written often about how judges in the Palmetto State are endangering the public with their excessive leniency when it comes to violent criminals (while giving victims the shaft). Additionally, I have noted in the past how I detest plea agreements to watered-down charges that result in violent criminals seeing less time behind bars than they deserve.
I want tougher punishments for violent crimes … not weak plea agreements.
Still, prosecutors are bound by what they can prove in court. And if it becomes clear that they cannot prove a key element of a particular charge, they should refrain from filing that charge – and instead present a jury with one they can prove.
Stone clearly failed to do that in this case …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass player and a dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has LOTS of hats (including the above-pictured Carolina Mudcats’ lid).
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