Inmates waiting up to four years to go to trial at taxpayers' expense
CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Some inmates in Lowcountry jails are waiting as long as four years to go to trial as cases continue to move slowly through the system. That’s even after a State Supreme Court order to move them more quickly.
In November, 2015, best friends Jamal Armstrong and Tyrell Miles were shot and killed in a car in the Greenhurst subdivision in Summerville.
Dorchester County deputies quickly arrested James Biggs the third and charged him with the murders.
Biggs didn’t go to trial until February of this year, almost three years after his arrest. He was found guilty.
For the victims' loved ones it was a long wait for justice.
“It was very stressful because you feel like you’re at the mercy of the court system. You can’t say when it’s going to go to trial,” Miles' mom, Tisa Whac,k said.
“When I got those phone calls saying it was postponed it’s like my heart just sank because I just wanted to get it over with,” Armstrong’s mom, Laquitta Armstrong, said.
They are not the only ones who had to wait so long.
As part of our investigation, we searched for the inmates who have been held the longest in each jail in the Tri-County area.
Damonte Seabrook, who is facing homicide by child abuse charges, was booked into the Charleston County Jail in September 2014, four years ago.
Rueben Gretton, who is facing kidnapping and other charges, was booked into the Berkeley County Jail in October 2014, also four years ago.
Ronald Andrews, who faces charges of DUI, leaving the scene of an accident with injury and otherss, was booked into the Dorchester County Jail in March 2016, two years ago.
Gretton was originally housed in the Berkeley County Jail. He and several other inmates were moved to the Charleston County Jail because of overcrowding.
Berkeley County Sheriff Duane Lewis says it’s costing taxpayers $800,000 a year to keep those inmates in Charleston County.
On average, it costs a little more than $18,000 a year to house inmates there.
“I can’t control how the courts operate and how they move cases and that sort of thing. It’s my responsibility to house them for ever how long it takes for them to get to court and that’s what we do,” Lewis said.
“There’s something that has gotten in the way of going to court,” Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said.
Wilson says trials might be delayed for several reasons.
Those may include awaiting lab test results, mental health evaluations to determine if inmates are competent to stand trial and another possibility.
“You see defendants who switch attorneys,” Wilson said.
That’s one of the things happened in Gretton’s case.
According to court records, in 2016, Gretton removed his attorney just before a scheduled court date.
Peter McCoy is Gretton’s current attorney.
“These things take time to build and work cases out, especially cases that involve a significant amount of prison time and so it happens,” McCoy said.
For years, solicitors in South Carolina had exclusive authority to manage and prepare court dockets.
In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional and ordered the criminal dockets to be managed by judges.
Wilson says Charleston county didn’t get the funding to do that until 2015. Wilson says now, most cases are called to trial in the order of the date of arrest.
"We wanted to find out why there are more cases pending now since the court order was issued so we reached out to Circuit Judge Markley Dennis who is in charge of the court docket.
Dennis referred questions to the State Supreme Court. A spokeswoman sent a four paragraph response which said in essence the numbers are misleading and that Dennis chose to try the oldest cases first.
Wilson is confident the new system will be successful.
"Everybody knew there were gonna be growing pains with making this shift and we're experiencing some of that. But I think we can, working with, the court will work with us we can see things improve," Wilson said.
McCoy says he’s confident Gretton will go to trial before the end of the year.
Senior Dorchester County Solicitor Don Sorensen says he expects Andrews to go to trial next month.
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