COLUMBIA, SC — Julie Webster never gave much thought to South Carolina’s laws – until June 3, 2011.
That was the day her 82-year-old father struggled to tell her that her 35-year-old brother, Steven Fowler, had been shot and killed in a Papa John’s parking lot off of Two Notch Road.
The man who later received a 50-year sentence for killing her brother – David W. Watson – had been arrested and released on bond four times over nine months, on charges including burglary, attempted burglary and possession of a pistol. He even had appeared in court the day of the shooting.
Thursday, Webster – along with police chiefs, bail bondsmen and victims’ advocates – urged a S.C. House subcommittee to pass S.19, which would make it tougher for suspects arrested on multiple violent crimes to be released while awaiting trial.
“I ask you, I beg you, do not let it become personal to you or someone you know,” Webster told lawmakers Thursday. “I can’t have my brother back. Maybe, we can save someone else’s brother because I wouldn’t wish this pain on anybody else.”
State law categorizes some crimes as “serious” or “most serious.” If a suspect is out on bond for a serious or most serious offense and is arrested for another serious or most serious offense, state law requires that suspect to have a bond hearing within 24 hours of arrest before a local magistrate.
The Senate bill, sponsored by state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, would change that.
A circuit court judge would have 30 days to hold a bond hearing for a suspect arrested for a serious or most serious offense while already on bond for one of those offenses. That would give the judge more time to consider additional information – such as the previous charges – and make it tougher for repeat offenders to get a bond.
“This bill will save lives,” said David Ross, director of the state Prosecution Coordination Commission.
But House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said it would be unconstitutional to hold somebody in jail for up to 30 days without a bond hearing. He blamed the recent incidents on “law enforcement ... lapses that allowed ... citizens to be hurt.”
“Law enforcement is blaming the State House because they are not doing their jobs,” said Rutherford, a criminal defense attorney. “The foundation of our legal system is that we let a thousand guilty people go free rather than put (one) innocent person in jail. This ain’t that. This is lock them all up, whoever is innocent we’ll figure that out later on.”
Others have concerns with the proposed law as well.
William Womble, the former chief magistrate for Richland County who now is executive director of the S.C. Summary Court Judges Association, said magistrates already can deny bond to a suspect if they are a danger to the community. And there is no proof circuit court judges will be tougher than magistrates. Historically, circuit court judges set lower bonds that magistrates, he said.
“Bond is not supposed to be a punitive thing. The person has not been convicted of a crime yet,” Womble said. “I understand the frustration, particularly in the city of Columbia. ... (But ) if you really are seriously going to do something, get their trials called quicker.”
State Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester, complained prosecutors were not making the most of available court time, saying some judges are only working half days because they have no cases to preside over.
“I don’t see the resources that we have in the state being effectively used,” Murphy said.
Ross, the prosecution coordinating commission’s director, told lawmakers that prosecutors do not want to delay cases because “we lose witnesses, we lose officers, we lose memory. It makes it difficult to prosecute.”
But with 110,000 pending criminal cases in South Carolina, Ross said prosecutors need more money to move cases quickly. To do that, he said, prosecutors have requested an additional $6.4 million in the next state budget to prosecute violent crimes – a request Republican Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed in her budget proposal.
“We as prosecutors want to do what y’all want done,” Ross said. “But we have to have the resources to do it.”
The bill already has passed the Senate. The House subcommittee considering the bill will have another meeting on the proposal during the first week in February, said chairman David Weeks, D-Sumter, who wants to pass the bill.
“The public has a very strong interest in this, so we are going to try to move forward.”
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.