After more than an hour of deliberation Wednesday, a jury found the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office did not unlawfully arrest or maliciously prosecute a Hardeeville man in 2008.
The verdict, which came on the second day of Theophilus Hamilton's civil trial, showed the jury believed there had been probable cause to arrest the Bluffton High School sophomore in connection with the brutal attack on Brian Lanese on Oct. 30, 2008. Hamilton was acquitted in August 2010, along with former co-defendant and Bluffton High student Henry Chris Battle Jr.
Battle settled the lawsuit for $30,000 in March 2013. Hamilton had rejected that settlement amount.
After the trial, Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he was pleased with the jury's finding and respects all decisions of the jury and the court. He and Sheriff's Office attorney Mary Lohr declined to comment further on the case.
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During closing arguments, Lohr pointed to testimony from her law enforcement expert witness, Lt. Brian Batterton of the Cobb County (Ga.) Police Department, who said he believed the Sheriff's Office made a good arrest.
Several pieces of evidence, the support of the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office and a grand jury indictment added up like "drops in a bucket" to meet the standard of probable cause, Batterton said.
Hamilton's attorney, Eric Erickson, argued that investigators did not corroborate information from the only person convicted in the attack, Kuwan Fields. Then 18, Fields named Hamilton and Battle, who were 16 at the time, as his accomplices after more than an hour of lying and evading deputies questions, Erickson said.
Deputies also failed to investigate Hamilton's alibi that he was home with his mother on the night of the incident, Erickson argued.
"(Investigator Louis) Novak said, 'That's just not going to cut it, Theo,'" Erickson said.
"Being at home is a crime now?" Erickson asked.
Hamilton, now 22, rejected the $30,000 settlement offer because he did not believe that amount made up for his time spent in jail, lost reputation and interrupted education following his arrest, Erickson said outside the courthouse Wednesday.
Erickson had asked the jury to determine an appropriate amount for damages, suggesting at least $85,000 for his 17 days in jail and another $60,000 toward school.
"I had hoped to replace his high school education with a college education today," Erickson said. "But the jury has spoken."
Hamilton did not react as the verdict was read and declined comment afterward.
His aunt Mary Fields, who raised him, later said she did not regret declining the settlement.
"It's not so much the money. It's to get Beaufort County exposed," Mary Fields said. "I believe in my heart, based on all the testimony I heard today, Beaufort County's whole (Sheriff's Office) is corrupt."
She questioned why Novak, who was mentioned frequently throughout the trial, did not appear in court.
Erickson had argued that Novak coerced statements from Kuwan Fields and inserted Battle's name into a police report to frame him and Hamilton. Under the S.C. Tort Claims Act, Judge Brooks Goldsmith instructed the jury not to hold the Sheriff's Office liable for any damages if it found an employee -- such as Novak -- acted with malice.
Erickson said he subpoenaed Novak, but the former Sheriff's Office employee could not be found. The investigator was fired in 2011 for insubordination after he failed to appear at a meeting, according to a Sheriff's Office disciplinary action.
Goldsmith also ruled the jury would not hear evidence of Novak's disciplinary record. That would have included a 2006 suspension for lying about purchasing alcoholic beverages with a county credit card, according to records included in the case file.
Reached by phone in late July, Novak declined to comment on the upcoming trial. Attempts to reach him Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Mary Fields said she planned to research her options.
However, Erickson said he did not plan to appeal the decision for his client, who he said was "yanked" from the path of becoming a college athlete.
Hamilton was a track standout at Bluffton High School, Erickson said.
"It's hard to understand that verdict, when my client's been through everything he's been through," Erickson said. "All I can do is tell my client to rebound and get a college education."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.