It’s been a rollercoaster ride for new South Carolina circuit court judge Heath Preston Taylor – a former criminal defense lawyer who took his seat on the Palmetto State’s bench last summer under some shady circumstances.
Taylor has had some hits and misses over the past thirteen months … and he raised the ire of victims’ advocates with a controversial admissibility ruling a recent high-profile boating under the influence case.
That ruling – which excluded lawfully collected blood alcohol data from the person responsible for a fatal collision on Lake Murray – nearly deprived the victims of the crash the justice to which they were entitled.
To recap: Shortly before 9:00 p.m. EDT on September 21, 2019, 68-year-old Stanley Kiser and two of his family members – wife Shawn Kiser and daughter, Morgan Kiser – were headed home in Stanley’s new pontoon boat near Susie Ebert Island on Lake Murray just northwest of Columbia, S.C. Out of nowhere, a Baja cigarette boat piloted by 57-year-old Tracy Gordon of Elgin, S.C. slammed into them.
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According to Shawn, her husband pushed her out of the way of Gordon’s onrushing watercraft – which saved her life but resulted in him being literally ripped to shreds by the propellers of Gordon’s boat. In turn, Morgan saved her mother’s life by ripping off the dress that covered her bathing suit and fashioning a makeshift tourniquet around her badly mangled leg – which was also struck by the propellers.
According to an incident report filed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), Gordon failed a field sobriety test at the scene of the crash, was placed under arrest and transported to the Alvin S. Glenn detention center. After refusing both a breathalyzer and a blood draw, a local magistrate ordered blood be drawn from him.
Unfortunately, a SCDNR agent failed to sign the probable cause affidavit accompanying the search warrant.
While the agent’s failure gave Taylor the excuse he needed to toss the evidence, the S.C. Code of Laws (§ 50-21-114, to be precise) is crystal clear regarding the doctrine of implied consent on South Carolina waterways.
“A person who operates a water device is considered to have given consent to chemical tests or analysis of his breath, blood, or urine to determine the presence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both, if arrested for an offense arising out of acts alleged to have been committed while the person was operating or directing the operation of a water device while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both,” the law states.
Beyond that clear and compelling statutory language, the magistrate who issued the order was reportedly ready to testify as to the validity of both the warrant and the blood draw.
Nonetheless, it was tossed.
As I noted in my coverage of this case, Taylor’s order excluding this evidence produced a “split decision” from jurors. Gordon was found ‘not guilty’ of boating under the influence resulting in death and boating under the influence resulting in great bodily injury – two charges which could have locked him up for a combined forty years. He was, however, found guilty of reckless homicide by operation of a boat – a charge which carries with it a maximum sentence of ten years.
On Thursday, Taylor sentenced Gordon to the maximum – ten years.
“You were impaired that night, very impaired,” Taylor said, telling Gordon he was “lucky” the blood alcohol evidence against him was excluded.
Gordon was lucky … he should have received significantly more time behind bars than he ended up with in this case.
Still, credit to Taylor for doling out the maximum sentence – although it certainly feels like jurors bailed him out with their guilty verdict on the reckless homicide charge. Prior to returning it, they had been considering a lesser negligence charge that could have resulted in Gordon spending just thirty days in jail – which would have been an absolute travesty.
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I’ve taken some heat from attorneys and judges for my criticism of Taylor. Many believe I chastised him unfairly for his admissibility ruling when the real blame, according to them, lies with the SCDNR agent who botched the warrant.
That’s fair, I guess. It certainly wasn’t all Taylor’s fault that this evidence stayed out … and to his credit, he made full advantage of the gift this jury gave him. Also, Taylor deserves credit for fully opening this trial to the media – including his critics – thus permitting the present scrutiny of his decisions.
More judges should follow Taylor’s lead in opting for maximum transparency in their courtrooms …
The bottom line? We are watching …
Every decision. Every ruling. Every sentence.
We are watching to make sure the public knows exactly what happens within South Carolina’s notoriously imbalanced “justice” system – and exactly what we think of it. Where judges get it wrong, we call them out. Where they get it right, we praise them. When it falls somewhere in between – as consistently seems to be the case with Taylor during his first year on the bench – we share those perspectives as well.
But know this: We will never stop bringing our audience the truth as we see it … and commending to their attention the action items we believe should flow from that best conception of the truth. Nor will we ever stop opening our microphone to our audience so that they can hold us to the same standard of accountability – with the ultimate goals being a fair and transparent system, real justice for victims, accountability for criminals and a safer state in which citizens can live, work and raise their families.
Our job is to call it like we see it … but more importantly, it is to host a conversation in which our “judgments” are subjected to the same scrutiny as those issued by the courts.
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 (soon to be eight) children.
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