Last month, our inimitably intrepid research director Jenn Wood reported on a series of jail calls in York County, South Carolina between 29-year-old Evan Hawthorne and his mother, Vonda Hawthorne. Evan Hawthorne stands accused of beating retired Rock Hill police lieutenant Larry Vaughan to death on July 23, 2021 after the two had been drinking at a bar.
S.C. circuit court judge Alex Kinlaw released Hawthorne from jail back in December on a $250,000 bond – over the objection of law enforcement, prosecutors, and victims in this case.
In the jail calls we obtained, it certainly appeared as though powerful S.C. minority leader Todd Rutherford – Hawthorne’s lawyer and one of a handful of lawyer-legislators who picks judges in the Palmetto State – angled to get the bond hearing before Kinlaw.
“You want the right judge,” Hawthorne told his mother, who had previously informed him Rutherford was watching the courts “to see what the lineup is for judges.”
Rutherford has made statewide news in recent weeks after conspiring with retired circuit court judge Casey Manning on the illegal and unconstitutional release of convicted killer/gang leader Jeroid J. Price from the custody of the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) back in March.
Price remains at large after the S.C. supreme court voided Manning’s order releasing him last week.
Earlier this year, a case out of the South Carolina Lowcountry highlighted the contemptible coziness of lawyer-legislators and the judges, although in this instance the insider machinations did not pay off for the imprisoned convict.
Readers of this news outlet will recall the story of Thomas Cade Garris, who was sentenced to fourteen years in prison last September after pleading guilty to felony driving under the influence in connection with a January 2019 crash that left one person dead and seriously injured several others.
At approximately 2:17 a.m. EST on the morning of January 26, 2019, Garris and his girlfriend left Mynt – a downtown Charleston nightclub – “after being asked to leave the establishment for rowdy behavior,” according to a release from the office of S.C. ninth circuit solicitor Scarlett Wilson.
“After arguing for some time in the alleyway next to the bar, Garris drove his Ford F-150 truck from a nearby parking lot and picked up his girlfriend, who needed assistance from several others to stand and get into the truck,” the release continued.
Proceeding north on Meeting Street and traveling at an estimated 56 miles per hour – 21 miles per hour above the posted limit – the F-150 operated by Garris “disregarded a solid red stoplight and struck a Mazda sedan which was lawfully traveling through the intersection of Meeting and Columbus Streets.”
The Mazda then slammed into a nearby building. Three of its occupants were seriously injured in the crash. A fourth, 32-year-old Billy Kappel, “succumbed to his injuries and died that night.”
Garris’ blood alcohol content at the time of the crash was .162 – more than twice the legal limit.
(Click to view)
Garris’ attorneys – the late David Aylor and state representative Deon Tedder – attempted to have their plea heard by S.C. circuit court judge Bentley Price of Charleston, S.C. Why? Because Price has an atrocious record when it comes to holding convicted criminals accountable for their actions, and because he and Aylor were close friends prior to the latter’s death four months ago.
Price was apparently ready to play ball with Aylor and Tedder, too.
According to an August 31, 2022 email from Tedder, “judge Price’s office has stated that he will accommodate the plea” from Garris.
Text messages exchanged between Aylor and Garris affirmed these backdoor dealings.
Referring specifically to the timing of the upcoming September plea hearing, Aylor texted his client saying “This also plays into our strategy for (the) judge.”
“We have political actions in the works that can help us with (the) judge, too,” he added.
Political actions, eh?
“We are going to go to the back and speak with the judge in chambers before the plea,” Aylor added. “That will help as well.”
“We have things in order,” Aylor assured his client.
Text messages between attorneys and their clients are, by definition, protected by attorney-client privilege. How, then, are we reading about them now? In this case, the texts were submitted by Garris’ new attorney – Brady Vannoy – in connection with a motion seeking a reconsideration of his sentence based on “ineffective assistance of counsel.”
Once Garris agreed to plead guilty, Aylor contacted the solicitor’s office informing them of the deal and letting them know Tedder was going to “contact the court shortly” and ask chief administrative judge Deadra L. Jefferson to move the case to Price.
An hour later, Tedder did just that – the “political action” – reiterating to the court that Price was on board to hear the plea.
(Click to view)
Later that afternoon, however, the clerk of court informed the attorneys their backdoor deal was off. Why? According to our sources, Jefferson “wouldn’t go for it” because Price was not scheduled to hear cases that week. Instead, she ordered Garris’ plea to be heard by circuit court judge Robert J. Bonds.
The day after the sentencing, Garris reached out to Aylor expressing his displeasure with the outcome of his case – specifically complaining that Tedder had been unable to successfully trade favors with the judicial branch.
“You assured me that Deon’s connection with (the) judge was going to help us … because Deon had helped him get him elected to his current position and he owed a favor, which I do not feel we received,” Garris wrote.
I reached out to solicitor Wilson’s office on Wednesday in the hopes of getting her thoughts on the Garris case. She offered an interesting perspective – pointing out that in some cases, the judges are every bit as upset about the process as the public.
“There’s zero proof that any of the judges did anything wrong,” Wilson told me. “All three were put in untenable positions. That’s a point that is often missed. It’s not just that the public is uncomfortable seeing legislators appearing before the judges they hire and fire. Without a doubt, many judges are uncomfortable, too. In the end, what really matters is the additional heartache the victims now have to endure because the guilty plea is being called into question. They should not have to go through this. These messages are a bad look, but we have to remember the records were redacted and there were meetings and conversations (to which) we aren’t privy. If there is a post-conviction relief action, that’s where sworn testimony should fill in the gaps.”
As for Tedder, he told me he had not seen Aylor’s messages to Garris but rejected the implication he would have attempted to apply political pressure on the court.
“I wouldn’t have communicated anything like that,” he told me.
To be clear: No one is suggesting Tedder or Price did anything wrong. Luckily, in this case, they weren’t given that chance.
Once again, the real enemy here isn’t necessarily the individuals involved but rather the broken system that perpetuates such backroom deals. For the first time in a long time, there is real momentum to fix that system.
Let’s hope it isn’t squandered …
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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