A little over a month ago, I began covering the saga of Robert Marks – a thrice-convicted, violent drug offender who appears to have received preferential treatment from South Carolina’s “justice” system on account of his powerful attorney, one of the lawyer-legislators who picks judges in the Palmetto State. On Wednesday, a gaggle of television cameras filled the Richland County courthouse in downtown Columbia, S.C. to watch Marks receive belated justice – or what passed for it – in connection with a 2016 drug trafficking arrest, one that should have put him behind bars for decades a long, long time ago.
Instead, circuit court judge Daniel Coble sentenced Marks to seven years in prison on a watered-down possession charge – saying the office of S.C. fifth circuit Byron Gipson had “pled (the case) as low as it can be.”
The unacceptably weak plea deal which precipitated this belated sentence was just the beginning of this travesty of justice, however … which provided us with yet another galling example of how powerful lawyer-legislators exploit a branch of government they effectively control.
To recap: Marks is a 39-year-old Richland County native with a lengthy rap sheet laden with drug and weapons charges dating all the way back to 2001. On the afternoon of April 25, 2016, deputies with the Richland County sheriff’s department executed a search warrant for narcotics at Marks’ home 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. “Agents also located a Glock 27 .40 caliber handgun and a Taurus .357 which was reported stolen by the Elloree (S.C.) police department.”
Cell phones, drug paraphernalia and cash were also discovered in the residence … along with two children.
Following his 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. According to the S.C. Code of Laws § 44-53-375, the third offense for trafficking meant 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 was represented on these charges by powerful lawyer-legislator Todd Rutherford – who sits on the influential S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC) and serves as minority leader of the S.C. House of Representatives. Perhaps more than any other state lawmaker, Rutherford controls – and profits from – the corrupt system of judicial selection in the Palmetto State.
Our audience will recall Rutherford also represented 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.
While Rutherford is reportedly staring down the business end of a federal investigation regarding his “official duties” as a lawmaker, his power over the Palmetto State justice system was on full display Wednesday.
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South Carolina is one of only two states in America in which the legislature chooses judges – a system which promotes sweetheart plea deals (like the one Marks’ got), anemic sentences, ridiculous bonds, the perpetual revictimization of victims and “mandatory minimum” sentences that wound up being not-so-mandatory (as we saw in the Price case).
The system also promotes institutional corruption and inherent unfairness – especially as it relates to the manipulation of the court’s docket and procedural considerations with set the stage for the aforementioned injustices.
After more than four years of delays in bringing Marks’ case to trial – thanks to Rutherford repeatedly invoking his “legislative immunity” from appearing in court when he doesn’t want to – a trial was finally held in December 2020. It was during these proceedings that Gipson’s office extended the controversial plea deal to Marks.
Naturally, Marks jumped at the offer. Pleading guilty to this lesser charge would dismiss all of the previously filed charges against him – thus keeping him from being subjected to the mandatory minimum punishment he so clearly deserved.
The deal soon got even sweeter, though …
Before a sentence could be doled out, court records (.pdf) showed Marks appeared 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.
At that hearing, Benjamin ordered Marks’ sentencing deferred while the state conducted a “pre-sentencing investigation,” or PSI. Such investigations are conducted 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.”
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PSIs 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.” None of these concerns applied to Marks.
Nonetheless, Benjamin ordered a pre-sentencing report for Marks on December 11, 2020. This evaluation was completed by SCDPPPS less than two months later. Astoundingly – or rather not astoundingly when you consider how justice “works” in the Palmetto State – it took prosecutors nearly three years to get Marks back in court for his sentencing.
Why? Because once again, Rutherford was busy invoking his legislative immunity. In fact, one hearing for Marks was cancelled because Rutherford was presiding over his judicial selection panel – a clique of fellow lawyer-legislators who choose the state’s judges. That’s right: Rutherford couldn’t be bothered to appear for Marks’ sentencing because he was too busy putting more judges to the bench who will do his bidding.
Rutherford nearly failed to show for this hearing, striding into judge Coble’s courtroom more than two-and-a-half hours after the appointed time – the picture of arrogance.
Did Coble call Rutherford out for any of this? Of course not …
During these repeated delays, Marks remained free on bond – despite being arrested once again and charged with arson and making false insurance claims and then being arrested yet again on a domestic violence charge. The first two charges are still pending, while the domestic violence charge has since been dropped.
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Prosecutor Melanie Darko inherited Marks’ case for the fifth circuit in the fall of 2021. She had nothing to do with the controversial plea agreement – or with the equally controversial decision to request a pre-sentencing report for Marks. Upon taking over the case, Darko – a decorated prosecutor – worked diligently to bring the Marks’ matter before the court, only to have the process repeatedly work against her, against the interests of justice and against the interests of public safety.
Gipson credited Darko for “actively working to schedule this matter for quite some time” – and records provided by the solicitor’s office confirmed her repeated attempts to get the matter placed on the docket.
Rutherford found a way to wriggle of the hook every time, though …
Was justice done, though? Or did those in power once again miss the point? When Marks finally appeared in court Wednesday to receive the lenient sentence associated with his sweetheart deal, the process devolved into a blame game – with Rutherford dominating the discussion and the judge letting him get away with a total mischaracterization of the controversy.
Screaming at the podium in front of judge Coble, Rutherford angrily berated law enforcement officers related to a non sequitur involving chronically unsafe conditions at a local detention center.
Rutherford’s anger was piqued after Lott and his officers stood behind Darko during the first part of the sentencing hearing, urging Coble to impose the maximum sentence allowed under the law on his client – ten years in prison.
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“Mr. Marks is a drug dealer,” Lott said at Wednesday’s hearing. “A major drug dealer. An armed drug dealer. He’s no different from somebody with a gun and a knife killing people.”
Lott asked Coble to sentence Marks to “send a message to other drug dealers that are putting this poison on our streets.”
Unfortunately, the message Coble wound up sending was that Rutherford was running his courtroom – allowing the powerful lawyer-legislator to engage in histrionical, unrelated ranting about the deplorable conditions at Richland County’s Alvin S. Glenn detention center. Rutherford called the facility a “living hell” – which is accurate. However, Rutherford failed to point out how conditions at the “Glenn” had any bearing on the case against his client, who will report to the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) to serve his sentence.
“People continue to get stabbed raped and beaten because we don’t have the manpower – the manpower’s right here,” Rutherford screamed, gesturing at the Richland County sheriff’s deputies assembled in the courtroom.
Rutherford also indignantly played the race card related to the so-called “war on drugs.”
“It is nothing but a war against people that look like me and my client,” he said. “It’s not corruption on behalf of judges, it’s not prosecutors giving plea deals.”
The judge’s response to all this bombast and misdirection?
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Not only did Coble tolerate Rutherford’s blame-shifting, race-baiting outburst – as well as his two-and–a-half hour tardiness to court – he made it abundantly clear he was laying the blame for the Marks’ fiasco exclusively on the state. Repeatedly, he referred to the “state’s own poor choices” as well as the prosecution asking him to “save it from itself” on the case.
While there is certainly some truth on that score as it relates to the controversial 2020 plea agreement, Coble directed nary a word of reproof toward Rutherford for his role in this miscarriage of justice. In fact, he expressed sympathy for Rutherford’s client as it related to the lengthy delay in this case coming to the court – going so far as to say it was “unfair” to him.
“It’s not fair to the defendant,” Coble said. “When these cases get kicked to the feet of the judges … who is to blame? Frankly I’m not going to put up with it. I’m going to call it out when I see it.”
Wait … not fair to the defendant?
Again, it was the defendant’s attorney who repeatedly refused to appear in court on this matter – delays which kept said defendant out of prison and on the streets for more than seven years (including nearly three years after he pleaded guilty). How are all those years of undeserved freedom in any way, shape or form “unfair?”
And …“who is to blame?” Is Coble serious?
Um, Rutherford – that’s who.
Coble missed a golden opportunity to tell Rutherford and other lawyer-legislators that their days of gaming the system on behalf of the criminals they represent are over. Because clearly, those days are not over at all in the courtrooms of the Palmetto State.
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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