On December 13, 2022, a bond modification hearing was held in York County, South Carolina for 29-year-old Evan Hawthorne. A former Chester County sheriff’s deputy, Hawthorne stands accused of brutally murdering a fellow law enforcement officer following a bar altercation last summer.
With a swagger in his step and a new haircut, Hawthorne strode into the courtroom where S.C. circuit court judge Alex Kinlaw would moments later grant his request for bond.
Why was Hawthorne so confident? Because the outcome of his hearing was determined in advance.
According to jail house calls obtained by this news outlet via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Hawthorne’s attorney – or at least his attorney for the purposes of the bond hearing – had carefully planned the timing of the proceedings to ensure he appeared in front of the “right” judge.
Hawthorne was represented on that day by S.C. minority leader Todd Rutherford – a powerful lawyer-legislator and member of the influential S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC). This is the secretive, legislatively controlled panel which determines which judges get to stand for election before the S.C. General Assembly – a process which has come under considerable scrutiny of late given the rampant corruption within the Palmetto State’s judicial branch.
According to calls between Hawthorne and his mother, Vonda Hawthorne, Rutherford orchestrated the timing of this hearing to ensure he appeared before Kinlaw. The tactic worked, too. Against the urging of victims – and over the objection of law enforcement and prosecutors – the judge gave Hawthorne a $250,000 bond.
For those of you unfamiliar with the particulars of this case, Hawthorne beat retired Rock Hill police lieutenant Larry Vaughan – a thirty-year veteran of the force – to death in his apartment after the two had been drinking at a bar, according to the office of S.C. seventh circuit solicitor Barry Barnette.
After the two were kicked out of the bar, Hawthorne allegedly followed Vaughan to his apartment. About an hour later, Hawthorne was “seen leaving that apartment complex covered in blood on his face, on his hands and on his clothes,” according to prosecutors.
He “stumbled off in a direction not toward his home” and was arrested hours later.
Given the brutal nature of Vaughan’s murder, few expected Kinlaw would grant him bond.
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“I’m still in shock – everyone was blindsided,” Lori Williams, Vaughan’s sister, said at the time. “I was confident that he was not going to get bond because there was nothing that had changed since his last bond hearing.”
In the recorded calls, it was clear both Hawthorne and his mother were fully aware of Rutherford’s tactics. In a call recorded on July 29, 2022, for example, Vonda Hawthorne told her son she had talked to Rutherford that morning.
“He said that, you know that he’s watching the … watching the courts for you to see what the lineup is for the judges and stuff,” she said.
Hawthorne told his mother not to rush Rutherford because “I mean you want the right judge.”
Vonda Hawthorne said that Rutherford told her the judge who had denied his bond initially is “usually a good one” but that he believed the decision had been made because they “allowed media into the courtroom” and the judge didn’t want to “add to that.” Hawthorne signaled he understood replying, “you can’t control the judges who come here. It might be a while before we get a good one.”
In another call recorded on August 11, 2022, Vonda Hawthorne told her son Rutherford believed the judge who initially denied his bond was being influenced by York County and he didn’t want to go through him again.
Additional calls placed in the months leading up to the bond modification hearing indicate the family was feeling hopeful about Hawthorne's chances of having his bond modified - optimism which was clearly warranted.
What about the victims in this case, though? As is too often the case in the Palmetto State’s “injustice” system, they were left holding the bag.
“You know this system is corrupt – and you know how far money goes,” Vaughn’s sister said. “But you never know how corrupt it is or how far the money reaches until it happens to you. Well, it happened to me. It happened to my family.”
After the hearing, FITSNews founding editor Will Folks reached out to York County sheriff Kevin Tolson – who along with S.C. sixteenth circuit solicitor Kevin Brackett has emerged as an outspoken opponent of the sort of excessive judicial leniency displayed by Kinlaw.
“I hope the public can become better educated in the way we select and retain judges in South Carolina,” Tolson told Folks. “I don’t think the average citizen understands how complicated and downright corrupt this process is.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ...
Jenn Wood is FITSNews' incomparable research director. She's also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she's married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at [email protected].
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