KERSHAW COUNTY, SC (WIS) - Drunk driving is a serious offense, and Kershaw County has the highest percentage of deadly crashes involving alcohol. They also have more than 700 pending DUI cases, but 600 of those accused drunk drivers could be getting off free and clear with their cases dropped.
Chris Potter, 24, was charged with felony DUI after his truck slammed into an SUV carrying a mother and her unborn child last week. Potter's passenger, 18-year-old Larry Hurst, died at the scene.
Potter was out on bond from a pending DUI charge only two months old. Potter is one defendant of more than 700 that have pending DUI cases in Kershaw County, cases that are awaiting their day in court.
"It's a surprisingly large number, when you look at a county of that size and with that population," said Public Safety Director Mark Keel.
Keel says DUI backlogs across the state are frustrating his troopers and making convictions difficult when an officer's memory of the facts fades or worse.
"In some of these cases, we know the evidence may not be there anymore and that's a concern for us," said Keel. "The troopers may not work for the agency anymore, they may have moved out of town. It's not a case you typically don't get subpoenaed to come back for."
Kershaw County Magistrate Gene Hartis said last month he just doesn't have the manpower to try DUI cases. It's a problem that has plagued Hartis' court for nearly a decade.
The longest-pending case on Hartis' docket belongs to defendant Nolan Jay Johnson, who records show was charged with DUI in October 2001. His attorney is state Senator Gerald Malloy, who declined to talk about how this case has gone nearly 10 years without a trial.
There are 441 pending cases with attorneys in Kershaw County. One law firm has more than half of those, the firm of George Speedy and Zach Atkinson of Camden. Speedy's law firm issued the following statement Tuesday afternoon:
My firm is employed by members of the public who are charged with various criminal offenses including Driving Under the Influence. When we begin representation of a new client, it is our obligation to evaluate their criminal culpability based on the charge(s) and the facts of each individual case, and advise the client accordingly. While it is not our job to schedule cases, we are mindful of the overwhelming burden placed on both law enforcement and the magistrate court system throughout the state. An inquiry to either law enforcement or the magistrate court will reveal that our firm is cooperative in scheduling cases and we rarely seek a continuance unless the conflict is beyond our control.
State Senator Vincent Sheheen appointed Hartis to lead the county's magistrate courts. His firm also has 13 DUI cases pending in the system.
"I think in Kershaw County, what we have to do it look at the results and say this is not acceptable and within one year, there should not be a significant backlog like there is," said Sheheen. "And if there is, then things have to change."
Last month, State Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal handed down a mandate to magistrate judges to try DUI cases within four months of the arrest. To meet that mandate in Kershaw County, Hartis says he may have to drop up to 600 out of the 700 DUI cases.
Some say the name of the game for defense attorneys is to delay a case as long as possible. Keel says there's no doubt about it. "We have constant continuances in a particular case," said Hartis. "I mean, I don't think there's any question that that has been used by some folks as trying to delay justice."
To put this in perspective, Kershaw and Lee counties are similar in size and demographics. Kershaw county has 733 pending cases, while lee county only has 121.
The court will have to report back by July 1 on the status of the backlogs.,/>