Bentley Price
Crime & Courts

Outgoing South Carolina Judge Still Accommodating Violent Criminals

Bentley Price is at it again …

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During his tenure as a South Carolina circuit court judge, Bentley Price has developed a well-earned reputation for the excessive leniency he repeatedly displays toward violent offenders – often at the behest of the powerful lawyer-legislators who appointed him.

Last fall, Price was denied another term on the bench owing in part to these controversial decisions. The “poster judge” for weak sentences – and dubious pleas – Price was found unqualified by the South Carolina Bar’s judicial qualifications committee last October. The following month, the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission (SCJMSCdeclined to advance him as a “qualified” nominee for judicial election – denying him another four-year term on the bench.

(To catch up on just a few of Price’s atrocious rulings, click herehere, here and here).

Unfortunately, Price remains a judge through the end of June … meaning violent criminals are continuing to receive the benefit of the doubt from him (while victims of violent crimes continue to be re-victimized by his rulings).

This month, it happened again in connection with a murder case from four years ago …

On the afternoon of March 20, 2020, 45-year-old Heath Watkins of Ladson, S.C. was driving a vehicle with Stephen Michael Rivers in the passenger seat when an argument erupted between the two men. The disagreement turned physical as Watkins pulled the car over on Foster Creek Road in Berkeley County. At some point thereafter, according to prosecutors in the office of S.C. ninth circuit solicitor Scarlett Wilson, Rivers pulled out a .45 caliber handgun and shot Watkins in the back.

Rivers, 45, also of Ladson, did not call 9-1-1 after shooting Watkins. In fact, according to court documents, he told a teenage resident at a nearby home “not to call 9-1-1.”

(Click to View)

Heath Watkins (Provided)

Three days after the shooting, Rivers was charged with murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime in connection with Watkins’ death. According to court documents, what followed turned into a judicial nightmare for Watkins’ family.

Watkins’ murder occurred at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Everything was shutting down – including South Carolina’s court system. As part of his bond agreement, Rivers was placed on GPS monitoring for 1,192 days – from March 25, 2020 through October 30, 2020 and again from February 1, 2021 through September 25, 2023 – while he awaited his day in court.

Represented by defense attorneys Mason West of Moncks Corner, S.C. and Shaun Kent of Manning, S.C., Rivers filed a motion requesting immunity under South Carolina’s ‘Castle Doctrine’ law – stating the shooting was in self-defense. Last May, Price heard arguments from both sides and ultimately ruled against Rivers (.pdf) – stating the evidence presented showed Rivers shot Watkins in the back and instructed the teenage witness not to call 9-1-1 following the shooting.

A plea deal was offered by the ninth circuit solicitor’s office and on September 25, 2023, Rivers accepted the agreement (.pdf) – which resulted in his charge being reduced from murder to voluntary manslaughter. Leading up to the sentencing date, Watkins’ family was told that when delivering their victim’s impact statements before the court they would not be allowed to read from notes – that their statements would have to be memorized. That’s when the S.C. Victims Assistance Network (SCVAN) got involved in the case – filing a motion on behalf of the family.

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“This already difficult experience can be exacerbated by having the arduous task of attempting to memorize or recall all significant remarks a victim wishes to make to the Court,” the motion noted.

Ultimately, Watkins’ family members were allowed to read their prepared remarks during the sentencing hearing. When it came time for Price to impose a sentence, prosecutors and victims requested twenty years of incarceration. The defense asked for a three-year sentence with 1,192 days (i.e. the entire sentence) credited to Rivers for the time he spent on a GPS ankle monitor while awaiting trial. Prosecutors objected to that request, arguing it would have resulted in Rivers serving no prison time for killing Heath Watkins.

Price ultimately sentenced Rivers to 25 years in prison – which he then suspended to 11 years while allowing Rivers credit for 596 days of his time spent on the ankle monitor.

On September 26, 2023, Rivers’ attorneys petitioned Price (.pdf) to reconsider his sentence and give Rivers credit for the full 1,192 days he was on a GPS monitor, stating “the court erred in denying credit for time served on GPS monitoring and house arrest.”

Prosecutors filed a swift response (.pdf) on September 28, 2023 objecting to this motion, referring to the sentence given as “fair and just.” The state’s motion further pointed out that while out on bond, Rivers repeatedly violated the conditions placed upon him leading them to file a motion to revoke his bond — which was ultimately heard and denied.

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Ankle Monitor

RELATED | GOP ANKLE MONITOR FAIL

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Notably, during the bond revocation hearing, the court found that GPS should be reimposed in lieu of revocation – an indication there was ample evidence showing Rivers had violated the terms of his bond agreement.

While waiting for Price to decide on Rivers’ motion, the future of his judgeship was decided. Curiously, one of Rivers’ attorneys sang Price’s praises to a local television station.

“The guy is one of the hardest working judges they’ve ever had,” the attorney told WCSC TV-5 (CBS – Charleston, S.C.). “He’ll work late; he’ll come in early. The reason there can be such negative press about a guy like Judge Price is he takes all the arrows, and he’s not afraid to make the tough decisions.”

On January 17, 2024, the parties received an email from the court stating that Rivers’ motion was granted. Price reduced Rivers’ sentence to seven years with five years of probation to follow. The motion additionally gave the violent convict credit for the full 1,192 days he spent on his ankle monitor.

Oddly, no order was filed by the court, but an amended sentence sheet was executed and sent to the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) on January 31, 2024.

Based on Price’s ruling, the projected release date for Rivers is now listed in the SCDC system as June 4, 2026.

(Click to View)

(SCDC)

Prosecutors have filed a motion to reopen Rivers’ sentencing (.pdf) but a date has not been set for that hearing – so it is unknown whether it will be heard by Price prior to his departure in June. In the meantime, the family of Heath Watkins is still adjusting to life without him – and confronting the knowledge that the man who shot him in the back and instructed a frightened witness to not call 9-1-1 will be released from prison in just over two years.

Count on this media outlet to keep our audience up to speed on the latest developments in this case. More importantly, count on us to continue holding South Carolina judges accountable when they fail to act in the interest of public safety.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Jenn Wood (Provided)

Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at jenn@fitsnews.com.

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5 comments

MarvinStraight March 7, 2024 at 12:04 pm

Why hasn’t Beatty put this guy on ice until his term ends? I guess they’re of the same mindset. Unqualified and lenient on the bad guys.

Reply
Sofia March 7, 2024 at 6:53 pm

Justice for Heath Watkins

Reply
Simon Templar Top fan March 8, 2024 at 11:59 am

Marvin I agree with you. They can reassign cases to other courts. Leave his court empty for repairs and upgrades. Or give him cases that require only a fine (class c traffic). But sharks are not about to eat each other. But I could almost bet no good law firm wants a slacker on their team. This man is awful.

Reply
Happy Jack Top fan March 8, 2024 at 2:51 pm

The SC Supreme Court could simply not assign him a docket from tomorrow until Friday, June 28, 2024 as his six year term officially ends on Sunday, June 30, 2024. Another option is to assign him to the farthest courthouse from his home for one day followed by travel to the farthest court the following day to preside over the SC equivalent of the dog catcher court. I am sure he can handle a dog catcher court given he has been running a kangaroo court since taking the bench. Another option would be to pay Judge Price now all of his remaining salary and benefits, collect his Circuit Court Judge license plate and tell him today is his last day.

Reply
Rock101FM March 10, 2024 at 3:13 pm

Drop in the bucket with all the things that go on that are kept secret.

Price should not even be an attorney and neither should the attorneys who represent the killer. Credit for awaiting trial? Since when is being on ankle monitoring lawfully deemed by the SC legislatures and signed into law y the SC governor, “incarceration”? The defendant was still lowed to leave his home!

There are other SC judges, current and past, who are/were even less’qualifued’ than Price. But their lawyer friends covered their backs. Even entities with the circuit courts clerk offices around the state, do they play along, too? From what I have come across, yes.

Keep up the impressive investigate reporting!

Reply

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