Compelling testimony could help stop violence

info@islandpacket.comJuly 31, 2012 

Law enforcement officials are understandably frustrated when they hit a wall of silence from potential witnesses to violent crime.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner and Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone plan to use a legal tool that could help knock down that wall -- the ability to subpoena witnesses before anyone is charged in a case.

They are trying to determine who should face charges in a series of violent crimes on St. Helena Island that has left four people dead and three others injured over the past nine months.

Tanner and Stone plan to use a state law known as the "mob statute" to subpoena witness to give sworn testimony. That testimony would be presented to a grand jury to indict suspects. Witnesses who refuse to cooperate could be held in contempt of court.

A mob is defined as two or more conspirators acting with the intent to harm another person or group. The recent incidents on St. Helena certainly seem to fit that definition.

Tanner and Stone should use the legal means available to them to gather evidence. If this statute can do that, they should make use of it.

There are myriad reasons someone might not cooperate with law enforcement. High on that list is fear of retribution.

Tanner drew a crowd of about 300 people to a meeting last week to explain why they were taking this tack. Given what's at stake for the community, that was a good idea.

But the meeting fell short in one critical aspect. Tanner had planned to take questions but he decided not to do that when the crowd was double what he expected. He said another meeting could be held in the next few weeks. He should follow through and be prepared to answer the community's questions no matter how many show up.

The reaction of one resident must be addressed: "I was expecting to hear new community policing efforts ... Instead it was, 'You better tell us what we need to know, or we'll put you in jail, too.'<2009>"

St. Helena residents must understand what's at stake and how they can help. They must understand that finding and charging the p responsible for violent crimes in their community will help prevent future crime.

A case in point: Dante Kendall Bailey, 33, who was killed in a nightclub gunfight June 21, had been charged almost exactly a year earlier with attempting to kill Lucas Morgan, 25.

The Solicitor's Office dropped charges against Bailey on Dec. 13 due to lack of evidence, according to court documents.

Morgan has been charged with attempted murder in the June 21 shooting.

Turning to the mob statute is not Stone's first attempt to come up with a way to compel witnesses to testify in violent crimes. In 2011, he helped draft a bill that would give solicitors the authority to form investigative grand juries that could subpoena witness and documents in certain types of crimes.

Stone pointed to the successful prosecution of a Walterboro man in a 2009 drive-by shooting that killed a 20-month-old child. He said the conviction would not have been possible without a state grand jury investigation, which compelled testimony from witnesses who wouldn't talk to police.

Unfortunately, the bill to create investigative grand juries within judicial circuits stalled in the House Judiciary Committee in 2011 and died at the end of the 2012 session.

It should be reintroduced. Law enforcement officials need tools to help them get at the truth so that a cycle of violence, where possible, can be broken.

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