South Carolina trial system creates years-long delays

The average waiting time for a trial is more than 3 years in Charleston County and your right to a speedy trial isn’t helping.
Updated: Sep. 28, 2023 at 5:38 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Jackie Britt has been waiting for the man accused of killing her son to face justice. She’s been waiting for three years and there’s still no change in the case.

Lance Davis and his girlfriend Brittany Reeves were killed in a hit and run on I-26. The crash happened around 3:25 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2020.

The South Carolina Highway Patrol says a car was traveling west when it hit the motorcycle ridden by Davis and Reeves. Davis’ mother says they were left on the side of the road to die.

“No one even knew until almost 730 Sunday night that this had happened,” Britt said. “He was my whole heart.”

Within a week authorities arrested 35-year-old Deon Lathel Gibson and charged him with reckless homicide and two other charges related to the hit-and-run.

Three years later, Britt is still waiting for justice. While her son is in the ground, Gibson is out and about. Despite new charges for new crimes after the alleged hit and run, he’s now posted bond twice and is effectively a free man, albeit with an ankle monitor and rarely enforced set of bond conditions.

“If you commit a crime in South Carolina, get a lawyer that is also in the legislature, and you can run free for four or five years and not worry about going to jail,” Britt said.

Gibson’s lawyer is Charleston County State Representative Leon Stavrinakis. While lawyer-legislators can assert immunity from going to trial while in the legislature, Stavrinakis says his tenure in Columbia has not impacted the progression of the case against Gibson.

“I do not control the trial docket either as a defense lawyer or as a legislator,” Stavrinakis said. “There are over 750 cases ahead of Mr. Gibson’s case on the trial roster.”

Stavrinakis is referring to the system that schedules cases for trial and the backlog that has been created because of its inefficiencies.

“The wait time for trial is still three to four years,” said Allie Menegakis, a Charleston lawyer and founder of South Carolina for Criminal Justice Reform. “This backlog is not new.”

Traditionally under British rule and common law, prosecutors were responsible for picking which cases went to trial and in what order.  However, the majority of states changed this system over time.  In fact, before 2012, South Carolina was the only state to still use this system.

In 2012, the South Carolina Supreme Court held in State vs. Langford that having the prosecutors control the trial docket as opposed to the judiciary was a violation of the constitution.  After the ruling, the Supreme Court ordered all lower courts throughout the state to change their docketing systems to comply with the Langford decision and remove the power to schedule cases from prosecutors.

Charleston County was one of only a few counties that complied with this order, redirecting the control of the trial docket from the solicitor’s hands to that of the clerk of court.  Charleston County Court even invested thousands of dollars into a new online case docketing system.

Meanwhile, most other jurisdictions ignored the order and continued to have their prosecutors determine which cases went to trial, when they went to trial, and in what order, causing violations of the defendant’s rights.

However, earlier this year, the Supreme Court effectively reversed its findings in the Langford case, issuing an order that places the majority of control of the trial docket back into the solicitor’s hands once again.

“That list can be as small or as long as they want. It has to be the list has to include 70% of the cases must be 30 months old or older. And they have to provide that list to the court and the defense within 45 days of the next trial docket,” Menegakis said. “Now, 45 days may seem like a good amount of time, but trust me as a defense attorney, preparing for trial, subpoenas and witnesses, getting all the motions together. Maybe you have multiple cases that are put on that trial docket. It can be very, very difficult and sometimes impossible to get ready within 45 days.”

In Charleston County alone there are thousands of cases waiting to get placed on the docket, delaying justice for victims, and denying the accused an opportunity to refute allegations for years.

Even if defendants wanted to speed up the process, their options are limited. Technically, South Carolina citizens have a constitutional right to a speedy trial, but that right has no real legal definition.

“We do not have a speedy trial, that right, that actually works,” Menegakis said. “The problem with it is that under our federal constitution and state constitution, there’s no timeline for how long a speedy trial is.”

South Carolina is one of 10 states without a law or judicial rule that defines the maximum amount of time a person can be charged with a crime without going to trial before the case is thrown out. Menegakis says without any kind of reason for a case to be thrown out, prosecutors have no incentive to resolve them quickly. But if they were given deadlines to go to trail, Menegakis argues, cases would move a lot faster.

“There’s no way they’re [prosecutors] going to have enough time, say they have 400 cases in their caseload and all of them are set to trial in 6 months. How are they possibly going to prepare? How can they? Do they need to? No,” Menegakis said. “As we know the majority of cases, 97 percent, of cases in this state are resolved via plea. Most of these pleas happen as cases are approaching trial.”

As for Gibson’s case, prosecutors did not return a request for comment on when it could be placed on the trial docket.