Shortly after 2:00 a.m. EST on the morning of December 7, 2002, an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity party at Club Voodoo in Columbia, South Carolina was just winding down …
As money collected from the event was being counted, members of two rival gangs – the Bloods and the Crips – engaged in a dispute that devolved into name-calling. A scuffle ensued, and after the melee then-22-year-old Jeroid J. Price of New York – a Bloods street leader – shot and killed 22-year-old Carl Smalls of Charleston.
Smalls was shot in the chest, stomach and hip – with a witness named Marcus Jones identifying Price as the man who fired the two fatal shots at Smalls as he was lying wounded on the ground. Another suspect, then-19-year-old Ryan Brooks, was also arrested for firing a non-fatal shot that struck Smalls.
At the time of his murder, Smalls played football at the University of North Carolina. He was also affiliated with the Crips.
A Richland County jury convicted Price of murder on December 20, 2003 – needing only thirty minutes to deliberate. Price’s conviction was upheld by the S.C. supreme court on April 17, 2006. The court’s appellate review was significant, as Price’s conviction had been challenged on the basis of the admissibility of testimony related to his gang affiliation.
His 35-year prison sentence – handed down by former S.C. circuit court judge Reggie Lloyd – was affirmed, meaning Price was supposed to remain behind bars until 2038, consistent with South Carolina’s mandatory minimums on murder convictions.
Under S.C. Code of Laws § 16-3-20 (A), “no person sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment for thirty years to life pursuant to this section is eligible for parole or any early release program, nor is the person eligible to receive any work credits, education credits, good conduct credits, or any other credits that would reduce the mandatory minimum term of imprisonment for thirty years to life required by this section.”
Hence the term “mandatory minimum.”
On March 15, 2023, however, Price was released from prison with fifteen years remaining on his sentence. No prior notification was provided to Smalls’ family – who were thus denied of their opportunity to be heard on the matter.
The decision to release Price was made by S.C. circuit court judge Casey Manning – who is retiring this year.
What, exactly, gave Manning the authority to circumvent this law?
Good question. According to multiple sources familiar with the judge’s order, it has been placed under seal.
How convenient, right?
S.C. Code of Laws § 17-25-65 allows judges to reduce sentences for inmates who provide “substantial assistance to the state” – although there is significant debate over whether these reductions should apply to mandatory minimum sentences. Among the categories of assistance enumerated under the law is “aid” to any S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) “employee or volunteer who was in danger of being seriously injured or killed” during riots or other violent incidents behind bars.
Of interest, though? Price was not housed in a SCDC facility at the time of his release. According to SCDC spokeswoman Christi Shain, he was released from a facility in New Mexico where he was being housed as part of an “interstate cooperation compact.”
Price had been housed in New Mexico since November 2020, according to his SCDC rap sheet (.pdf).
S.C. first circuit solicitor David Pascoe – who prosecuted Price’s murder case in 2003 as an assistant solicitor in the fifth judicial circuit – was livid with the decision.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to find out why this defendant was released after serving only 19 years on a murder sentence, why the victims were not notified and why this order is sealed,” Pascoe said. “I have no comment at this time regarding Mr. Price’s lawyer-legislator attorney or the judge who signed his release papers.”
According to Pascoe, Smalls’ family was not notified of Price’s release until the day it happened.
This is not the first time a South Carolina circuit court judge has pulled something like this on their way out of office.
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Last April, DeAndrea Benjamin – wife of former Columbia, S.C. mayor Steve Benjamin – reduced convicted murderer Dushon Staten’s thirty-year sentence by two years for purportedly giving officers at SCDC “substantial assistance during active incidents” behind bars.
Benjamin was narrowly elected to the U.S. fourth circuit court of appeals in February after her husband raised big dollars for powerful U.S. minority whip Jim Clyburn – the man who delivered early-voting South Carolina to U.S. president Joe Biden in 2020, resurrecting the latter’s moribund presidential candidacy.
As usual, it is never about justice in South Carolina … it is always about politics.
As I noted the last time this happened, “mandatory minimums should be mandatory … no exceptions.”
Otherwise, we had better start calling them something else.
I reached out to Price’s attorney – S.C. House minority leader Todd Rutherford – to get his thoughts on the situation.
Rutherford told me he would love to discuss the case – but said Manning’s sealed order precluded him from doing so. Generally speaking, Rutherford believes judges in South Carolina have the authority to “go under” mandatory minimums based on the statute invoked by Benjamin in the Staten case.
“Nothing happens in a vacuum,” Rutherford told me, again speaking generally as it relates to the statute. “There has to be something hugely significant.”
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Attorneys like Rutherford have argued the “substantial assistance” statute – passed by lawmakers in 2010 – supersedes the mandatory minimum murder sentence. Prosecutors I spoke with disagreed, however.
“For it to be a superseding statute, it needs to directly address the code section which mandates people guilty of murder must do no less than thirty years,” one prosecutor told me.
In other words, the 2010 statute does not apply to “mandatory minimums.”
Given the fact this order has been sealed – and no one is talking – I have no idea what Price purportedly did to earn his freedom. Perhaps there is a compelling argument to be made on his behalf – although I would argue any such discussion should have been had in public with the family of the man he murdered present and able to
In fact, I was under the assumption the S.C. Constitution (Article I, Section 24) specifically forbade crime victims from being ambushed like this – expressly affording them the right “to be informed of any proceeding when any post-conviction action is being considered, and be present at any post-conviction hearing involving a post-conviction release decision.”
Those rights were trampled on in this case … which, sadly, is also par for the course in the Palmetto State.
The real problem? South Carolina judges – and the powerful lawyer-legislators who appoint them – keep looking for loopholes to make life easier for violent criminals when they should be strengthening statutes, raising bond amounts and imposing harsher sentences.
And we wonder why violent crime is skyrocketing?
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. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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BANNER VIA: GETTY IMAGES