Frustrated by witnesses to a deadly shooting refusing to talk, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone and Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner turned to a decades-old statute for help.
The result: 61 people testifying before a grand jury and murder charges against two men who had previously been arrested in the June 2012 incident that left two men dead and two wounded at a St. Helena Island nightclub. A third man was charged with assault and battery by mob as part of the indictments.
Stone and Tanner used the "mob statute" to subpoena witnesses to give sworn testimony. The law allows subpoenas to be issued before an indictment if a case involves a violent act by a "mob," defined as two or more co-conspirators intent upon hurting a person or group of people. Witnesses who refused to cooperate could be held in contempt of court.
Of course, charges don't always mean convictions, but we're closer to determining who was responsible for what happened that night because people were compelled to tell what they knew and saw, and more importantly, faced punishment if they lied under oath.
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Stone and Tanner were smart to use this legal tool, but the cases in which the mob statute can be used are limited. It couldn't be used in a rape or murder case involving only one perpetrator, for example, or in drug trafficking cases.
Stone also has pushed for another tool he says would help get at the truth in a much broader range of cases. Under the proposal, solicitors would be able to ask a circuit judge to allow them to form special investigative grand juries that could subpoena witnesses and documents in certain types of crimes, including those that carry a maximum sentence of 15 years or more.
Stone said in 2011 that county grand juries 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. The county grand juries also can't investigate suspected crimes across county lines.
Stone said the investigative grand juries 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.
Unfortunately, a bill to create investigative grand juries went nowhere in 2011 and 2012.
We'd like to see local lawmakers try again to give solicitors a potentially very useful tool in seeking the truth in criminal cases.