With all the changes in almost every part of life due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Assistant Fourth Circuit Solicitor Shipp Daniel sat down and answered our questions about how the criminal court system is adapting.
The Dillon Herald: Has the pandemic changed a lot of what you are able to do?
Daniel: Yes, the pandemic has greatly affected every aspect of our operations. But pandemic or no pandemic, Solicitor Will Rogers and our entire staff are committed to providing justice to crime victims and defendants alike. We have put in place several new policies and procedures to ensure we still communicate with victims and defense lawyers. We’ve worked hard with our detention center staff to make sure people aren’t needlessly sitting in jail. For example, we had a handful of people scheduled to appear in court in March, when they would have pled guilty and been released from jail. But our March term was canceled, and it’s not fair to make those people sit in jail waiting months on another court date when they would have gotten out in March had we had court. So we signed orders releasing them until court resumes. Now we haven’t done that with major cases or violent offenders; I’m talking about simple cases with no victims involved. My assistant, Jennifer Evans, has been amazing, working hard to see that all the paperwork is where it’s supposed to be so we can move the cases we can move.
The Dillon Herald: Are you able to have court?
Daniel: Our South Carolina Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Don Beatty, began issuing orders months ago directing what we can and cannot do. Most of that is consistent with national CDC guidelines concerning large groups of people, social distancing and the like. We just had our first three days of General Sessions Court, but it was all remote using videoconferencing – the judge, the defendant, the defendant’s lawyer, the clerk’s office, the probation office, the court reporter and I all remoted in from our own offices and the jail. After a couple weeks of prep work to get those logistics sorted out, we had a successful three days where we moved the cases we could move, both from the jail and some defendants who were out on bond. It’s been an exercise in patience, but we’re all doing the best we can.
The Dillon Herald: How do you handle new arrests?
Daniel: Usually, when someone is arrested and charged with a General Sessions crime, they have a bond hearing before a magistrate or municipal judge. If they’re able to make that bond, the judge gives them a court date, called an Initial Appearance. It’s at that court date that the defendant, their lawyer and I meet to try to work out the case, and then we schedule that case for court before a judge. We usually have 75-100 people in the courtroom one day a month for Initial Appearances. Right now we aren’t allowed to have anything close to that number of people together, so the magistrates are telling defendants to check our website (www.solicitor4.com) or call our Court Information Line (843.897.1107) for regularly-updated court information. It is the responsibility of each defendant to know his or her court date, and failure to appear could result in the issuance of a bench warrant. But we don’t want to have to bench warrant anyone. We will post court dates as soon as we know what they are, and we will post them with plenty of notice, so I’d strongly encourage all defendants to show up.
The Dillon Herald: How do you handle your Pre-Trial Intervention Program during the pandemic?
Daniel: Mrs. Rhonda Dew is our outstanding PTI Director, and she is working with all her clients to work around the obstacles presented by the pandemic. They’re having telephone conferences and making adjustments to our normal procedures and requirements. We’re also sending letters to defendants on new cases where we’re offering our PTI program. If PTI clients have any questions about their requirements, they should call our office at 843.774.1448.
The Dillon Herald: What kind of delays will this cause cases that are waiting for trial?
Daniel: This will be among the most difficult things – having to tell victims and defendants of crimes who were up soon for trial that those trials are on hold indefinitely. We will of course follow the guidance of our Supreme Court, but no one knows at this time when we might be able to have large groups of people – like a jury – in close proximity again. But as soon as we are allowed to start that back up, we will be ready to go. We also are given only about eight full weeks of court each year by the Supreme Court, so our court time is already quite limited. Add in this pandemic and the ban on large group gatherings, and it presents challenges.
The Dillon Herald: What is your response to all of the recent shootings in Dillon County?
Daniel: I think it’s tragic. The way our system works, law enforcement investigates crimes, makes arrests and then sends their materials to the solicitor’s office for us to make decisions as to how the case should be resolved within the parameters of fairness, ethics and justice. So the way I handle a case is directly impacted by the case file that law enforcement brings me. And the quality of the case file law enforcement is able to put together is directly related to cooperation it gets from witnesses. And I would submit one of the biggest hurdles to solving crimes is getting people with knowledge about a crime to speak up. People often want to blame law enforcement, but law enforcement can’t arrest someone just because they think they committed a crime. They have to have evidence. So many times people see things or know things but don’t want to get involved, and that significantly hurts law enforcement’s investigation and therefore my ability to successfully prosecute a case. My burden in any case is to prove that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. If people have information but won’t share it, it makes my job extremely difficult in proving the case to a jury without some of that information. Like the saying goes – it’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove in court. There have been several cases we’ve had to dismiss or cut plea deals because people wouldn’t come forward with information we knew they had. And I understand the struggle – sometimes people are afraid to come forward for a multitude of reasons. That’s just the reality of the situation. But at the end of the day, all we want is the truth, and we will proceed with that truth in whatever direction it takes us. And above all, the one thing we all can do is to pray for our community.
The Dillon Herald: Anything else you want to add?
Daniel: Thank you for reaching out for this interview. I know everyone is struggling in many different ways to get through this pandemic. We’ve got good people here – our Clerk of Court Gwen Hyatt, our probation and parole office, our sheriff’s department, our police departments, our public defender’s office, our judges. We all understand that the job of the criminal justice system isn’t to throw everybody in prison but instead to do justice for all parties – even when there’s a virus that’s changing our current way of life.
Under Solicitor Rogers’ direction, we are all committed to doing what we can within the parameters of public health and safety to continue providing justice. And for defendants who are uncertain about their court date, please continuously check our website at www.solicitor4.com or call our Court Information Line at 843.897.1107.