One of South Carolina’s most prominent law enforcement leaders is calling out Palmetto prosecutors – especially those in the Midlands region of the state – for their role in the chronic coddling of violent offenders.
While I have long maintained corrupt judges deserve most of the blame for this increasingly dangerous accommodation, Richland County sheriff Leon Lott told me this week that those in charge of locking up these violent criminals must also be held accountable.
Last week, we reported on thrice-convicted drug trafficker Robert Marks – who has been on the streets for several years due to a controversial “pre-sentencing investigation” request made by powerful lawyer-legislator Todd Rutherford in connection with his case.
Rutherford, readers will recall, is a leader of the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC). This clique of influential lawyer-legislators decides which judicial candidates get to stand for legislative election each year. South Carolina is one of only two states in America in which the legislature chooses judges – a system which promotes sweetheart plea deals, anemic sentences, ridiculous bonds, the perpetual abuse of victims and “mandatory minimum” sentences that wound up being not-so-mandatory.
The result of all this? Widespread institutional corruption, material erosions of public safety. And the transformation of an ostensibly independent judiciary into a political annex of the legislature.
Rutherford is Marks’ attorney. He was also the attorney for convicted killer and gang leader Jeroid J. Price, who was unconstitutionally released from the custody of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) in March of this year – sparking a nationwide manhunt.
Price’s unconstitutional release, first reported by this media outlet, highlighted the incestuous relationship between powerful lawyer-legislators, judges and prosecutors – and the growing danger it poses to public safety.
Marks’ case underscores that danger …
In addition to a litany of drug offenses, Marks has charges on his record for firing a weapon inside a dwelling, possessing a weapon during the commission of a violent crime and possessing a stolen weapon. Following an April 2016 arrest he was standing trial in December 2020 for this third cocaine trafficking offense – which carried a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty-five years. During these proceedings, though, S.C. fifth circuit solicitor Byron Gipson abruptly called off the trial and agreed to drop all of the charges against Marks if he pleaded guilty to a lesser sentence of possession with intent to distribute.
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Before this “lesser sentence” could be doled out, though, Rutherford went to one of the judges he appoints and cut another insider deal. 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.
Rather than impose a sentence, though, Benjamin ordered a “pre-sentencing investigation,” or PSI. A rare accommodation, PSIs are typically reserved in the event 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.
Lott spoke to me Tuesday about the Marks’ case.
“It’s a miscarriage of justice,” the sheriff told me. “There’s no reason for him to be on the streets.”
“That’s the crack in our criminal justice system,” Lott continued. “We’re not holding people accountable. So there’s no reason for them not to continue committing crimes.”
And while Lott referred to the Marks case as “another attempt by defense attorneys to keep people from being held accountable,” he made no secret about where he believes the blame for the fiasco truly lies.
“I don’t fault defense attorneys,” Lott said. “They are just trying to get the best deal possible for their clients. The prosecutors are the ones who are really to blame. Prosecutors need to be held accountable.”
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Lott called the justice system in his home county a “total failure” due to this persistent lack of accountability. According to him, prosecutors are “more concerned with numbers and getting cases moved” than they were with securing justice for victims.
Referring to the Marks’ case – and the unconstitutional release of Jeroid Price – Lott made it clear he believed the problem originated in the solicitor’s office.
“The common denominator is the prosecutor,” he said.
Several months ago, Lott and Gipson appeared with nearly three dozen police and prosecutorial leaders alongside S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson. As our audience is aware, Wilson is leading a push to reform the Palmetto State’s judicial selection process. At this event, Lott spoke passionately about the need to fix the current victimizer-friendly system.
“Our citizens need help – they’ve been victimized every day,” Lott said at the time. “It’s about protecting our citizens. They’re asking for our help. We are all elected to serve the people – let’s do it.”
Gipson did not speak at Wilson’s event.
Asked this week whether he and Gipson had a different conception of criminal justice, Lott answered in the affirmative.
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“That’s accurate,” Lott said. “I believe in accountability. Reducing sentences and dismissing cases? That’s not part of it.”
Lott has repeatedly called out the current criminal justice system in the Palmetto State as a game of “catch and release” – one in which law enforcement officers repeatedly apprehend dangerous defendants only to see judges and prosecutors put them back out on the streets with virtually no consequences.
During our conversation on Tuesday, Lott encouraged me and other citizens frustrated with the system to go see it for ourselves.
“Go to 1701 Main Street and sit in the courtroom on the days they are taking pleas,” Lott said, referring to the Richland County judicial center. “You will see catch and release is alive and well.”
According to the sheriff, recent attention drawn to this issue has positively impacted some judges – especially at the magistrate level. And especially as it relates to bonds.
“I see some progress on the bonds,” he said. “The problem has gotten the attention of our magistrates.”
But Lott quickly noted “we still have a ways to go,” and that the perspective of law enforcement must be better incorporated into prosecutorial plea negotiations.
“We need to be part of that decision-making process,” Lott said. “We’re the ones who are with the victims. We’re the ones who see the victims. We’re the ones who see the dead people.”
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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