South Carolina fifth circuit solicitor Byron Gipson is defending his office’s handling of a recent high-profile drug prosecution – as well as his team’s overall record of putting violent criminals behind bars.
Gipson addressed recent comments made by Richland County sheriff Leon Lott – who spoke with this news outlet earlier this month about the need for prosecutors in South Carolina to be held accountable for their role in the Palmetto State’s notoriously lenient criminal justice system. Lott did not mention Gipson by name, but the veteran law enforcement leader criticized the solicitor’s office for its handling of the case of Robert Marks – a thrice-convicted, violent drug trafficker who appears to have received special treatment from former S.C. circuit court judge (and current U.S. fourth circuit judge) DeAndrea Benjamin.
Lott also made it clear (when asked) that he and Gipson have “a different conception of criminal justice.”
“That’s accurate,” Lott said. “I believe in accountability. Reducing sentences and dismissing cases? That’s not part of it.”
As this news outlet reported earlier this month, Marks has been on the streets for several years due to a controversial “pre-sentencing investigation” (PSI) request made by powerful lawyer-legislator Todd Rutherford in connection with his case.
Rutherford’s request was granted by judge Benjamin in December 2020 – yet as of this writing no hearing has taken place on the sentencing. Also worth noting? It took more than four years from Marks’ 2016 arrest for him to be brought to trial.
Lott referred to Marks’ case as a “miscarriage of justice.”
“There’s no reason for him to be on the streets,” the sheriff said. “That’s the crack in our criminal justice system. We’re not holding people accountable. So there’s no reason for them not to continue committing crimes.”
Gipson pushed back on the Marks case, saying PSI is a tool frequently used by the S.C. Department of Probation Parole and Pardon Services (SCDPPPS) to shed light on defendants’ histories.
“This process allows (SCDPPPS) to do a deeper dive into a defendant’s background, then offer sentencing recommendations to the presiding judge,” Gipson said. “In the vast majority of cases, sentencing occurs contemporaneously with the plea or trial, however PSIs are requested and conducted from time-to-time.”
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As for the ongoing delay in getting Marks back before a judge to actually be sentenced (SCDPPPS finished the pre-sentencing report in early 2021), Gipson said his office “has been actively working to schedule this matter for quite some time.”
A review of court records confirmed as much …
One item of interest gleaned from those records, though? On one of the dates Rutherford declined to make himself available to hear Marks’ plea, he was attending a meeting of the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC) down the road from the Richland County courthouse. A clique of influential lawyer-legislators, the SCJMSC decides which judicial candidates get to stand for legislative election each year.
In other words, Rutherford couldn’t be bothered to appear for Marks’ sentencing hearing because he was too busy appointing more judges to the bench who will do his bidding in future cases.
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.
Speaking generally about Lott’s criticisms – and the criticisms of others about his office – Gipson disputed the characterizations, saying “we’re holding people accountable every day.”
He pointed to nearly two dozen recent trials and dozens of recent pleadings – including several dozen cases in which defendants were sentenced to more than ten years in prison. One of the recent trials our news outlet reported on just last month.
“Every case we’ve won is an example of accountability,” Gipson said. “Every one of those pleas is an example of accountability. Unfortunately his definition of accountability seems to mean obtaining the result that he believes is proper. That’s not always the way it works, though. We are very tough on violent crime. We are very tough on gun violence — the proof is in the pudding.”
“There is a vast chasm between probable cause – the standard to make an arrest – and beyond a reasonable doubt, the legal standard required for a jury to convict,” Gipson continued.
He cited numerous factors which make the chasm even wider – including the reticence of many victims and witnesses to testify in cases in which they believe their lives could be in danger.
As for Lott’s suggestion that citizens “go to 1701 Main Street and sit in the courtroom on the days they are taking pleas,” Gipson said his office would welcome the scrutiny.
“Yeah, come down,” he said. “Come on down. And not just for five minutes or six minutes, Sit through a trial to see our office in action. Observe the criminal justice system in action, then you will have the opportunity to judge accountability with your own eyes.”
Regarding Lott’s assertion that his deputies were “the ones who are with the victims – the ones who see the victims,” Gipson said his office “does that every day.”
“Our victims advocates meet with victims and their loved ones daily,” he said. “They assist victims as they seek restitution, as they seek counseling, through trial preparation and they are present during the entire trial as well. We are present from the moment the case is transferred to our office through resolution — trial, plea or otherwise. We wear their elation and their frustration. We are a part of their lives through the resolution of the case with our office.”
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“At the end of the day we’re on the same team,” he said. “We want to make Richland County a safer place, a better place. And we’re working hard every day to do that. It is around-the-clock work. When arrests happen at 2:00 – 3:00 a.m. in the morning, we get those calls as well. Law enforcement calls us on these cases to request advice as to whether probable cause exists too.”
Gipson said upticks in crime have strained law enforcement, prosecutorial and judicial resources, although he praised state lawmakers for “aggressively addressing” recruitment and retention.
“They have given us money for recruitment and retention and that’s helping us to hire new assistant solicitors and raise the salaries of our veteran prosecutors,” Gipson said. “That’s major for us – and we’re very thankful.”
Gipson also credited lawmakers for funding a statewide case management system that he said would “help us with the organization of cases – tracking offenders across counties, and sharing info.”
“It will help us streamline our preparation and be more deliberate in our prosecutorial decisions,” he said.
As for fixing the broken system of judicial selection, Gipson did not endorse any specific reform proposal – although he rejected the idea of popularly electing judges.
“Each branch needs to have a say-so,” he said. “I don’t believe there needs to be a popular election, but there’s a sweet spot here that we have to find. Any reform needs to be based on the principles our country was founded on – the checks and balances and separation of powers between the branches of government.”
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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