Beaufort County's top prosecutor hopes the legislature will give solicitors a new tool for investigating violent and complicated crimes.
Duffie Stone, 14th Judicial Circuit solicitor, wants the legislature to give solicitors the authority to form investigative grand juries that could subpoena witnesses and documents to further stalled investigations. Similar to state and federal grand juries, the panels would operate in secret and determine whether charges should be filed.
Stone has helped draft a bill, currently in a state House committee, to create the juries for the state's judicial circuits. Stone's 14th Circuit spans Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton, Colleton and Allendale counties.
"We have many complex cases and investigations we deal with on a regular basis that involve multiple crimes and multiple witnesses," Stone said. "This would be an investigative tool used primarily to go after the most violent criminals and investigate the most complex cases."
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Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said the juries would be especially helpful to investigations in which witnesses lie to deputies or refuse to cooperate. He said the juries also could compel testimony from gunshot victims who would rather seek revenge against the shooter than "snitch."
"A lot of the investigations we do are difficult because we have witnesses who refuse to cooperate," Tanner said. "Having an investigative grand jury utilized in all five counties across the circuit gives us a legal opportunity to cut to the chase. They are under oath and they have to testify."
In an example of such case, Stone pointed to a Walterboro man recently convicted for a 2009 drive-by shooting that killed a 20-month-old child. Stone said the conviction could not have been possible without a state grand-jury investigation, which compelled testimony from witnesses who wouldn't talk to police.
Stone said the juries also would speed up investigations of complex public-corruption cases that typically have large paper trails because they could subpoena key documents. Stone cited the embezzlement case of former Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith as an example of a case that could have gone to trial more quickly.
"An investigative grand jury would have been extremely helpful," he said. "The auditor was thorough, and we still wanted those results, but it took a long time."
'A TOOL TO FIND THE TRUTH'
Currently, criminal court grand juries in use in counties around the state are set up to ensure prosecutors have enough evidence to take a case to trial. Legally, the juries can subpoena documents, but since the proceedings are held in secret -- without attorneys -- prosecutors don't have access to the information, Stone said. They also can't investigate suspected crimes across county lines, he said.
"The county grand juries serve a screening function. They're not set up to investigate," he said.
Stone also said the investigative juries also would fill a gap left by state grand juries, which were created in 1990 to investigate multi-county drug trafficking cases and later expanded to examine environmental, gang and public-corruption cases.
Despite the expansion, state grand juries cannot investigate murder cases, nor suspected gang activity involving fewer than five people, Stone said. State juries also are impaneled once a month in Columbia only, which can make it difficult for local witnesses and law-enforcement officers to attend, he said.
Under the legislation Stone is seeking, the investigative grand juries would be impaneled in the most populous county in each circuit.
The juries, which would be made up of 18 residents from the circuit, could issue indictments or reports. At least 12 jurors would have to agree before an indictment is issued.
"It's not a new concept, but it's new to circuit courts in South Carolina," Stone said of the local investigative bodies, which are used by district attorney offices in states such as New York and Tennessee. "I've seen it work."
WHERE THE BILL STANDS
The bill, H3767, sponsored by state Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, and Rep. William Bowers, D-Hampton, was referred March 1 to the House Judiciary Committee.
Herbkersman said last week he believed the legislation would help law enforcement and prosecutors do their jobs more effectively. He said he had a positive response from Judiciary Committee members, who liked the proposal "right away."
A hearing is expected on the legislation within the next three weeks, he said.