As thrice-accused teen rapist Bowen Turner prepares to re-enter society after spending sixteen months behind bars, the prosecutor who signed the plea deal which will put him back on the streets appeared before the South Carolina Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSC) seeking a circuit court judgeship.
The timing was … inauspicious.
This was not deputy second circuit solicitor David Miller’s first appearance before this evaluative panel, as the Aiken native and U.S. Marine Corps veteran has appeared before it on multiple occasions in the past. Miller is an experienced attorney who has prosecuted more than 5,000 cases personally – and who has the unique experience of having represented both state and the defense in capital litigation cases.
Three years ago, this panel found Miller qualified to serve as a circuit court judge – yet failed to submit his name to be voted on by members of the S.C. General Assembly. The 2020 SCJMSC report (.pdf) called Miller an “exceptional attorney” who is “known in his position as deputy solicitor to be approachable, diligent and fair.” This assessment of Miller’s character was shared by the S.C. Solicitors’ Association, which presented Miller with the Ernest F. Hollings Award for Excellence in State Prosecution in 2022.
Yet Miller’s appearance before the SCJMSC this week was anything but celebratory, as father of one of Bowen Turner’s victims – Karl Stoller – appeared alongside victims’ rights attorney Sarah Ford to share how they felt Miller was central to a miscarriage of justice in the disposition of Turner’s case.
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Stoller, a former Orangeburg County sheriff’s deputy, told the commission Miller was “lackadaisical” in the pursuit of justice for his daughter Dallas Stoller, claiming he failed to adequately communicate key information such as the timing of court appearances to victims. Stoller further alleged that Miller executed a plea deal at a hearing publicly billed as a bond-revocation – and did so without the support of Turner’s victims.
Stoller told the panel he understood the difficulties of prosecuting sexual assault cases, having seen many such cases through to disposition during his decades as a law enforcement officer. Still, he said he was shocked when Miller told the Stoller family he didn’t want to “waste my time or the time of twelve jurors on a case I can’t win.”
Dallas Stoller committed suicide in the wake of persistent bullying she endured following her decision to accuse Turner of rape. Miller told the panel he felt her case was the strongest against Turner – but that Stoller’s death left him with no option but to offer the defendant a plea agreement.
In 2022, Turner victim Chloe Bess (who was assaulted while Turner was released on bond) recounted her assault to FITSNews.
“I remember him (Turner) coming out … and then I just remember him pulling me behind the tree line, and then we go behind a truck, and the next thing I know I’m on the ground,” she recalled. “He’s a lot bigger than me, I only weigh 115 pounds, I’m really tiny – so there was not much I could do in that moment in time. I remember looking at the stars, and I could feel what was happening, and I was aware of what was going on and I was just petrified, I was frozen I couldn’t move, I wanted to kick and scream, but I just couldn’t move – I didn’t know what to do, at that point I’m looking at the stars and I’m just like ‘I hope it’s at least quick so I can get up and run away.””
Bess was ready to tell her story to a jury when Miller decided to offer Turner a single simple assault charge as part of a plea deal.
In 2020, Miller submitted the following statement to the SCJMSC: “I pride myself in my ability to work with the defense bar and judges to come up with fair and just resolutions to cases. I also take pride in my reputation as a capable trial attorney if a resolution cannot be reached.”
Miller has certainly secured impressive convictions in the past – which is why his failure to do so in the Turner case was so baffling.
While no overt improprieties have ever been alleged, Miller’s willingness to work with powerful state senator Brad Hutto – who represented Turner for a majority of the case – has come under scrutiny in the wake of Turner’s plea.
SCJMSC member – and powerful S.C. House minority leader – Todd Rutherford complimented Miller’s willingness to work with defense attorneys at a previous hearing saying he wanted the prosecutor “to know how much I appreciate him being my lawyer over the years in the solicitor’s office.”
Rutherford and Miller recently worked together to negotiate the release of a man convicted of a violent home invasion fourteen years early after he reported on an intimate relationship between an inmate and a S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) officer.
Inmate Alberto Lopez was serving a 40-year prison sentence for breaking into a North Augusta home, shouting at the family residing therein, demanding they take him to a person who didn’t live there, threatening their lives and ultimately shooting the family’s father eight times.
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Details of this arrangement were first reported by Zak Koeske of The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper after the illegal, unconstitutional release of Jeroid Price (another of Rutherford’s clients) brought to light to the existence of these secret deals.
The propriety of this arrangement wasn’t addressed by the SCJMSC at Miller’s screening, despite the commission’s mandate to examine the ethicality of each candidate’s conduct.
Several commissioners grilled Miller on his conduct in the Turner case.
Pete Strom told Miller he had known him since he clerked for judge Rodney Peeples and that “you’re better than this” – referencing letters from law enforcement leaders and prosecutors on his behalf, including Strom Thurmond Jr., the former S.C. second circuit solicitor.
“You’ve always been a tough prosecutor – I’m looking back through your file and I see where two sheriffs have written you letters (of recommendation) and that’s after all this stuff has been public, Strom Thurmond Jr. wrote a letter recommending you, but you have created an issue that’s an embarrassment to our judiciary and our court system,” Strom said, referring to the Turner case.
“You’ve got a state senator representing somebody, you didn’t do a good job communicating with the victims like you should, and there’s obviously some temperament issues here, I think we’ve talked about that before when you’ve run, you can have a little bit of a temper,” Strom continued.
Strom said he was “mad” at Miller for the way the Turner case was handled.
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“You’ve embarrassed our system, I don’t know wether you’ll get voted out of this today, I don’t know wether you’ll get elected judge, but I’ll tell you this – temperament is a big deal with this commission,” Strom said. “If you become a judge and you have this issue going down the road I can tell you every single person sitting around here will vote you out the next time you come up, and this will be on the record the next time you come up.”
Strom’s criticism of Miller was especially harsh considering his prior statement in support of Miller’s 2020 bid. During that hearing, Strom noted “if somebody has something negative to say about (Miller), I would say that person has a character flaw.”
Miller expressed his regret that victims were not better communicated with, but he contested a number of the specific allegations made by Ford and Stoller – and defended his record of treating clients represented by private attorneys (and lawyer-legislators) the same as those represented by public defenders.
SCJMSC chairman Micah Caskey expressed his displeasure with Miller’s response to a “softball” question asking why he’d have liked to have taken the Turner case to trial.
“What I had hoped to hear in response to that question of why you wanted to prosecute this, is that you were convinced that justice required the prosecution of that man, but that you were unable to proceed because of the ethical considerations you clarified here, I would have liked to have heard more about your commitments to pursuing justice because you had analyzed the case, but had recognized the limitations under our professional rules of conduct,” Caskey said.
Strom and Caskey weren’t the only members of the commission to put their displeasure on the record, and while some commission members remained neutral – Rutherford jumped to his defense when he disagreed with Caskey’s interpretation of aspects of the impropriety of the plea deal.
When I spoke with Ford after the hearing she told me she believed there was a good faith effort made to get to the bottom of the Turner case, but contended “it’s not just about this case, theres other cases in which David Miller has been involved that give me great pause as a lawyer.”
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Ford pointed to the Lopez case, and the fact that Miller is on the record saying he wasn’t sure if the victims were notified prior to Lopez’s release (they were not notified).
“By us not talking about things that are going on in our courtrooms … making it look like there’s something to hide, that gives people less confidence in our system, and that’s not what I want,” she said. “I think every lawyer and judge in South Carolina wants people to have confidence in our system, but us pretending everything’s ok, that there isn’t anything wrong with the system, isn’t going to help that.”
Ford implored members of the state’s legal community “to address this head on.”
‘We have to investigate these things, we have to ask the questions, we have to sometimes be ok with shaking things up,” she said.
FITSNews has been at the forefront of an ongoing campaign to hold South Carolina’s criminal justice system accountable for the outcomes it produces on behalf of victims – and the public.
“For those of you unfamiliar with this ongoing institutional racket, the Palmetto State is one of only two states in America in which powerful lawyer-legislators picks judges,” our founding editor Will Folks has often noted. “As we have seen in far too many cases, the politicians picking the judges turn around and reap the rewards of this influence by receiving preferential treatment on behalf of their clients.”
Bowen Turner’s case was a prime example of this ongoing system failure.
As this news outlet has consistently noted, the current system has enabled institutional corruption, shredded the rights of victims, empowered violent criminals and materially eroded public safety. It has also turned the judiciary into little more than a political annex of the legislature … a problem with is getting worse, not better.
Stay tuned next week for further coverage of SCJMSC hearings as well as an update on the progress of a S.C. House of Representatives committee charged with drafting a judicial reform bill.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
(Via: Coleman Rojhan)
Dylan Nolan is the director of special projects at FITSNews. He graduated from the Darla Moore school of business in 2021 with an accounting degree. Dylan primarily covers education when he isn’t producing video content. Got a tip or story idea for Dylan? Email him here. You can also engage him socially @DNolan2000.
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