This news outlet has expended plenty of bandwidth railing against dangerous, corrupt judicial leniency in South Carolina. We’ve covered sweetheart plea deals, anemic sentences, ridiculous bonds, abuse of victims and – more recently – “mandatory minimum” sentences that wound up being not-so-mandatory.
At the heart of it all? Powerful lawyer-legislators who control how judges are picked in the Palmetto State … and profit handsomely from the influence they exert. And judges (and a few prosecutors) who refuse to stand up to them.
Fixing this broken system has been one of our top priorities in recent years … and will continue to be until the system is actually fixed. Thankfully, in recent months, we have seen a surge of support for such reforms. Just this week, in fact, another example of judicial corruption resulted in even more state lawmakers demanding reform.
Just when we think we have plumbed the depths of lawyer-legislators’ crookedness, though – or the willingness of prosecutors and/or judges to go along with it – along comes another example.
Today’s case study? Robert Marks.
A 39-year-old Richland County native, Marks has a lengthy rap sheet laden with drug and weapons charges. In fact, his charges date all the way back to 2001. Marks served some time behind bars in connection with some of these charges, but he has also seen numerous charges either dismissed, not indicted or not prosecuted.
That’s not the leniency I’m referring to in this story, though …
To be clear: Given its libertarian moorings, this news outlet views drug charges differently than other websites. Even so, Marks’ charges do not point to a recreational drug user – someone eager to avail himself of his individual liberties. He is a drug trafficker – one with charges on his record for firing a weapon inside a dwelling, for possessing a weapon during the commission of a violent crime and for possessing a stolen weapon.
By April of 2016, Marks had already been arrested at least five times and hit with more than a dozen criminal charges tied to his various drug activities. But his biggest charges were just about to drop …
On the afternoon of April 25, 2016, deputies with the Richland County sheriff’s department executed a search warrant for narcotics at 1129 Omega Drive off of Decker Boulevard in the Dentsville region of eastern Columbia.
“Search of the premises revealed approximately 205 grams of cocaine (the equivalent of nearly 60 “eight balls”), eight grams of crack cocaine, 31 ecstasy pills, one pound of marijuana and 22 grams of a substance recognized as Molly,” a Richland County incident report (.pdf) noted.
Molly is MDMA – or ecstasy.
That’s not all they found, though.
(Click to view)
“Agents also located a Glock 27 .40 caliber handgun and a Taurus .357 which was reported stolen by the Elloree (S.C.) police department,” the incident report continued.
Cell phones, drug paraphernalia and more than $1,000 in cash were also discovered … along with two children.
According to the report, Marks was “found to have multiple prior convictions.” He further admitted – after being advised of his Miranda rights – that all of the drugs and guns found in the home belonged to him.
Following the 2016 arrest, Marks was charged with a third offense for trafficking cocaine (more than 200 grams), possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, felony weapon possession and several other charges. The charge that should have locked him up for a long time? The third offense for trafficking, which according to the S.C. Code of Laws § 44-53-375 had him staring down a mandatory minimum prison sentence of twenty five years – “no part of which may be suspended nor probation granted” – along with a fine of $100,000.
Marks’ attorney? Powerful state lawmaker Todd Rutherford – the man at the heart of the latest judicial selection fiasco and a chronic abuser of the South Carolina lawyer-legislator “justice” system.
(Click to view)
After more than four years of delays in bringing Marks’ case to trial – thanks to Rutherford’s “legislative immunity” – a trial was finally held in December 2020. During those proceedings, though, S.C. fifth circuit solicitor Byron Gipson suddenly agreed to drop all of the charges against Marks if he pleaded guilty to a lesser sentence of possession with intent to distribute.
Pleading guilty to this lesser charge would keep Marks from being subjected to the mandatory minimum punishment he so clearly deserved.
It gets worse, though …
Before a sentence could be doled out, Rutherford pulled another rabbit out of the hat on behalf of his client. On December 11, 2020, court records (.pdf) show Marks pleaded guilty to the lesser possession charge before former S.C. circuit court judge – and current U.S. fourth circuit appeals judge – DeAndrea Benjamin, one of several Midlands-area judges with a reputation for doling out excessively lenient sentences to violent offenders.
How did Benjamin get her federal gig again? Right …
At the top of his sentencing sheet? A handwritten notation by the judge that his sentence had been deferred due to a “pre-sentencing investigation,” or PSI. Take a look …
(Click to view)
Such investigations are held by the S.C. Department of Probation Parole and Pardon Services (SCDPPPS) at the “direction of the court,” with the agency “fully investigating and reporting to the court in writing, the circumstances of the offense and the criminal record and social history of the defendant.”
They are exceedingly rare in the criminal justice system in South Carolina. In fact, they are typically ordered when a judge “has reason to believe a defendant suffers from a mental disorder, retardation, or substantial handicap.”
“I’ve NEVER seen one for a three-time drug trafficker who has already been to prison for drug trafficking,” one veteran prosecutor told me. “Total bullshit to order in this case. Just a way to allow him to stay on the streets.”
PSIs typically take approximately a month to complete, according to the prosecutors who spoke with us for this story. How long did Marks’ report take?
Good question …
As of August 4, 2023 – the date we went to press with this story – Marks had yet to be sentenced. That’s right, the PSI report requested back in December 2020 has yet to be heard by a judge. In other words, more than two-and-a-half years after Marks got a sweetheart plea deal – in a case that took four-and-a-half years to see trial – he remains on the streets.
Which, of course, is the whole point of the “justice” system in South Carolina – as envisioned by lawyer-legislators, pushover prosecutors and corrupt judges, anyway: Keeping violent criminals on the streets.
And not just on the streets, either. While awaiting trial on his third offense trafficking charge, Marks was arrested and charged with arson and making false insurance claims. Those charges are pending in the fifth circuit, and he is represented – as usual – by Rutherford. Meanwhile, Marks was arrested again in March of 2021 – less than three months after his “deferred sentence” was announced – this time on a domestic violence charge in Lexington County.
Like so many of the charges filed against him in the past, this one was also dropped.
When will this insanity end? When will criminals in this state truly be held accountable for their actions? When will the public finally say ‘enough’ to the corrupt politicians and crooked judges responsible for these galling outcomes? And finally, when will those who keep getting abused and violated by the system that’s supposed to protect them decide to stop suffering in silence and start taking matters into their own hands?
We have got to fix this system. And we have got to fix it now.
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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