Victims’ families speak on courtroom conduct of judge deemed ‘unqualified’ by SC bar

Published: Oct. 26, 2023 at 5:53 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 26, 2023 at 6:39 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The South Carolina Bar Association has concluded that a sitting Lowcountry judge is unqualified for the position, but what led to that decision remains confidential.

An investigation reveals that while he maintains his authority to issue justice for victims, more than one family says he’s done the opposite and maintains he doesn’t deserve to stay on the bench.

Multiple victims’ families whose cases have gone before Judge Bentley Price are now saying he should not be reelected by state legislators at the end of his term, citing extremely lenient sentences and what they believe was disrespectful behavior.

The murder of Marion Grice and the case against his alleged killer

Andrea Manigault’s son Marion “Chauncey” Grice was shot and killed outside of the A-1 Food Store in North Charleston in Nov. 2021. Grice was kind and fun, a loving son, brother and uncle and a hardworking 25-year-old, she says.

“I could not understand who would shoot him because I know he didn’t do anything to anybody,” Manigault says. “The two offenders didn’t even know him. They thought he was somebody else.”

Dartez Ferguson Jr. was later charged with Grice’s murder. At the time, he’d already pleaded guilty to a host of other violent crimes: strong-arm robbery, assault and battery and discharging a firearm into a vehicle. He was also facing a slew of pending charges: robbery, possession of Rohypnol or roofies, trafficking cocaine and more.

The assistant solicitor told Manigault she had been keeping an eye on Ferguson for years, Manigault says.

“[The assistant solicitor] said she had been trying to get this particular guy’s bond revoked before my son was even dead,” Manigault says.

After the murder—and despite the rap sheet packed with violent convictions and charges, as well as a new indecent exposure charge while Ferguson was in jail—Price later released Ferguson on bond. Since his release, Ferguson violated house arrest and was out past curfew hundreds of times, court documents show. Still, after a hearing in late August when the prosecution filed to revoke Ferguson’s bond, Price bowed to pressure from Ferguson’s attorney, State Representative Leon Stavrinakis, and allowed Ferguson to remain out on bond.

“I have never, ever been so disappointed by someone in power as I was with Judge Price,” Manigault says. “It was like he slapped me and my family in the face.”

It wasn’t just Price’s decision to let the accused killer out on bond that Manigault finds offensive, however. Price’s behavior toward her and her family left Manigault feeling troubled.

“My daughter, she even said, ‘Momma, when you were talking, [Price] rolled his eyes, and I thought that was so disrespectful,’” Manigault says. “We’re grieving, and we’re having to go to court time and time again just for this judge to slam the door in our face and say, ‘You’re not with it.’”

The shooting of Eugene Fordham and the two siblings convicted in the murder

Manigault isn’t the first person who says they have had issues with Price. Multiple other victims’ families, other attorneys and community groups have reached out, saying Price’s rulings are too lenient and his treatment of victims and their families is disrespectful.

“The way Judge Price is in that courtroom, he is no better than the man that killed my husband,” Rhonda Fordham says.

Fordham first reached out last year about her husband’s murder case.

“[The nurse] put his wedding bands in my hand and said, ‘I thought that you would want this,’” Fordham says.

Antwonn Gregg gunned down Eugene Fordham as he answered the door of the house where he was visiting in Mar. 2019, according to court documents. Gregg’s sister Andrea Gregg was the getaway car, driving them to and from the house for the murder, the arrest warrant shows. She made multiple phone calls after the shooting but never called police, the warrant states. Andrea Gregg was charged with accessory after the fact to a felony.

“That is a day that I will always remember because it took something out of me,” Rhonda Fordham says.

Both siblings—Andrea and Antwon Gregg—pleaded guilty to their crimes, but when it came time for sentencing, Price suspended Andrea Gregg’s sentence, giving her probation and no jail time despite her being a key part of the shooting.

“She was supposed to serve 3 years in jail and have 8 years probation,” Rhonda Fordham says. “She walked out the courtroom with us that day.”

Rhonda Fordham, too, echoes Manigault’s concerns about Price’s demeanor in the courtroom, expressing that he was flippant and thoughtless toward victims’ families.

“So this man just get to get away with it?” she says. “Somebody needs to do something about it.”

A deep dive into judges’ decisions

After hearing from numerous people all reiterating the same complaints about Price, Live 5 Investigates wanted to see if there really was a larger trend at play. We hoped to break down his and other judges’ decisions on sentencing and bond to quantify and analyze them.

The Clerk of Court’s office, however, says they don’t track judges’ decisions and have no centralized system or documentation monitoring and recording a judge’s rulings.

The Clerk of Court’s Office said to file a Rule 610 Request with the State Court Administration to get the information.

Live 5 Investigates got our attorneys involved and filed the request, only to have it denied. The denial reads: “You may obtain the information using the search functions available to the public on websites maintained by the South Carolina Judicial Department or any court of this state.”

While it is possible to look up sentences or bond details at the courthouse or through online court records, everything is sorted by defendant, and there is no way to search by judge or easily track the decisions a particular judge is making.

“What are the types of sentencing ranges that judges are giving for certain types of crimes? I don’t know of any way that the public or lawyers even can find out that information,” Sarah Ford, the legal director of the South Carolina Victim Assistance Network, says. “There doesn’t seem to be the free flow of information when it comes to what’s actually happening in our courtrooms.”

S.C. Bar Association’s ‘Unqualified’ ruling

Meanwhile, as work continued on this story, the South Carolina Bar Association released its report evaluating judicial candidates in the state. The bar officially deemed Price as unqualified for the bench Oct. 6, and though the bar will not go into detail about specific candidates, it did share general information about the vetting process and what it means to be unqualified.

In an email, officials from the bar explain there is an extensive vetting process for judicial candidates in the state. One of the phases involves the SC Bar Judicial Qualifications Committee.

“For the Bar process, volunteer attorneys – this cycle included law professors, ethics experts, defense attorneys, plaintiffs attorneys, partners in big firms, solo practitioners, lawyers from prosecution and public defender side, senior lawyers, YLD members and many in-between, from all 4 judicial regions in the state – call 30+ attorneys to conduct an anonymous phone survey on each candidate,” an email from officials reads. “The calls are made randomly (based on the candidate’s geographic locations and their practice area) to SC Bar members. The survey centers around the 9 evaluative criteria of the SC Code Section 2-19-35. The volunteer attorneys then conduct in-person interviews with each candidate, including questions regarding basic evidentiary and procedure rules. The candidates’ questions and answers are provided to the [Judicial Merit Selection Commission] for their review.”

As the bar goes through the process of telephone inquiries and in-person interviews, the group’s Judicial Qualifications committee meets as a whole to vote on each candidate and determine if he or she is well qualified, qualified or unqualified.

“The process is confidential and deliberate,” officials from the bar say. “An unqualified rating means the [Judicial Qualifications Committee] had serious concern about that candidate in at least one of the evaluative areas….One unqualified rating in any area results in an unqualified rating overall because the Committee believes there cannot be serious concerns about an incumbent/candidate’s ethics and be a qualified judge, by one example, or serious concerns about one’s temperament and be a qualified judge, etc., etc.”

Price’s path forward

Legislators first elected Price to the bench in 2019. His term is up next summer but next week, state legislators are set to hear testimony and comments on judicial candidates as part of the judicial selection process.

He’s one of two candidates vying to have his seat on the bench for the ninth circuit, which is made up of Charleston and Berkeley counties.

Being deemed unqualified by the bar doesn’t mean Price won’t be reappointed; ultimately that’s up to the legislature to decide.

“Our legal system needs a makeover—it needs a makeover—and it needs to start at the top,” Fordham says.

For the sake of other victims and their families, however, Manigault and Fordham both hope someone else takes over the bench for ninth circuit cases.

“He has no business being a judge because he is unethical, he’s biased, and he doesn’t uphold the law,” Manigault says. “God help us if he continues to rule.”

Price has not yet responded to a request for comment.