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Public records for teen accused of sexual assaults missing from Public Index

Published: May. 16, 2022 at 6:15 PM EDT|Updated: May. 16, 2022 at 6:36 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Some of the charges and corresponding public records for Bowen Turner--the Orangeburg County teenager accused of multiple sexual assaults in multiple counties—do not show up online in South Carolina’s Public Index, even after Live 5′s attorneys have tried to intervene.

The Public Index is the state’s website where court records are posted online. You can type in a name and see what charges someone is facing or what lawsuits they’ve filed.

Turner is accused of three sexual assaults in three counties. Court documents show he also violated the terms of his house arrest more than 50 times while out on bond to go to restaurants, golf courses and even across state lines. After pleading guilty to assault and battery as part of a deal with prosecutors last month, a judge sentenced Turner to 5 years of probation.

For months, however, when you typed Bowen Turner into South Carolina’s Public Index for Orangeburg County, no results would appear, even though Turner had that pending first-degree criminal sexual conduct charge from 2019 and that guilty plea in April.

If you wanted to look at any of Turner’s court records for the Orangeburg County case, you had to go in person to the courthouse, unlike others defendant whose charges, bond information and other details would show up online.

So we got our attorneys involved.

They sent the Orangeburg County Clerk of Court a letter, arguing the public’s right of access to the public docket was being violated.

“The docket and filings in the case are judicial records that are presumptively public under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the South Carolina Constitution, and the common law and must be made available contemporaneously with filing,” the letter reads.

The letter requests that Turner’s case be made available in the public index.

“As the Fourth Circuit observed, ‘By sealing the entire docket sheet during the pendency of the litigation, as the district court permitted in this case, courts effectively shut out the public and the press from exercising their constitutional and common-law right of access to civil proceedings,” the letter states. “’But there is a more repugnant aspect to depriving the public and press access to docket sheets: no one can challenge closure of a document or proceeding that is itself a secret.’”

In an response emailed to our attorneys, the Orangeburg County Clerk of Court says:

“This file is available for Public View. You are welcome to visit the office to review this file. We are aware it is not showing up on Public Index. The reason it is not showing up on Public Index is because it was first put in system as a Juvenile case and then transferred to a General Sessions case. We have contacted the help desk to get this matter corrected but they informed us it can not be changed. Sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused.”

The sister of one of Turner’s victims says she doesn’t buy it.

“That’s inexcusable,” Brette Tabatabai says. “That’s a ridiculous response. I think it’s a danger, and I’m extremely concerned about it.”

Media law attorney Jay Bender says he could interpret Turner’s absence in the public index for the sexual assault case in two ways.

“You either say it’s incompetent, lack of staff or somebody benefitting from a coverup,” he says. “My most benign thought is incompetence. My cynical thought—and you can tell I’ve earned all of these gray hairs by being observant and cynical in public records cases since 1975—[is] that there is some continuing allegiance to Bowen Turner’s father, who was a law enforcement officer and an investigator for the solicitor’s office in Orangeburg County prior [to the 2019 charge].”

Turner’s latest charges that came last week— disorderly conduct, possession of alcohol by a minor and threatening a public employee –do show up in the public index.

Turner is expected to appear in court in June for another bond hearing. He was denied bond by an Orangeburg County judge last week for probation violation.

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