- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:


September 1

The Post and Courier, Charleston, South Carolina on police video:

When witnesses clam up or disappear - and suspected criminals are released as a result - the good guys lose. Police, whose hands are tied, lament that not enough citizens help them get bad guys off the streets.

Clearly, some would-be informants don’t feel safe. They fear retribution from the accused or his friends. They don’t have confidence that the police will be able to protect them.

And as has become more obvious across the country this year, many citizens - particularly black citizens - simply don’t trust police.

That problem is exacerbated when law enforcement agencies develop their own reputations for withholding information.

And while S.C. lawmakers wisely voted to require law enforcement officers to wear body cameras, the law allows only people captured on video, criminal defendants and civil litigants access to the recordings.

The police should not have the license to withhold video from incidents when someone is injured or killed by an officer. Doing so only would widen the credibility gap between the authorities and the public.

Some law enforcement agencies refuse to release dash cam footage, which is supposed to be available to the public. For example, a dash cam video is still under wraps in the February 2014 shooting death of an unarmed 68-year-old Edgefield County resident. A law enforcement officer was charged in the case.

In another troubling case, the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation last month into the July 26 shooting death of a 19-year-old man by a police officer in Seneca, S.C. The State Law Enforcement Division has refused to release the dashcam footage.

Recorded footage can cut to the heart of the matter. Just consider the bystander’s video of the April shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston, for which then-police officer Michael Slager has been charged.

Consider, too, the inevitable decline of trust that occurs when lengthy delays in the release of evidence cause the public to suspect a cover-up by law enforcement officials … People can help make their communities safer by stepping up when they have information that would help solve a crime.

And law enforcement can help establish trust with communities by being as open as agencies want citizens to be.




August 27

The State, Columbia, South Carolina on dangerous drivers:

We’re all more than familiar with the fact that the Legislature spent yet another year failing to make our highways safer. What we tend to forget is that all of us can make up for lawmakers’ inaction.

No, we can’t pave over the potholes or widen the curvy roads or add lanes in congested areas or realign dangerous intersections. But as much as we need to improve the physical condition of our deteriorating roads and bridges, the fact is that their poor condition isn’t the most dangerous thing about them.

The most dangerous thing about our highways is our drivers. The most dangerous thing about our roads is us.

S.C. drivers have always been deadly, and this year is on track to be the most deadly in years. As of Thursday, 601 people had been killed on S.C. roads - 107 more than at the same time last year. That’s an increase of 22 percent.

You’ve likely seen the number of the day if you drive on interstates around metropolitan areas, where message boards are heralding it, along with a simple admonition: Buckle up.

That’s because you slash your chance of being killed in a wreck in half by wearing a safety belt. Here’s another way of looking at that: Only about 10 percent of the drivers in our state don’t wear safety belts, yet they account for half of the automobile drivers and passengers killed on our roads.

Conversely, your chance of causing an accident goes up three times if you drive with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent - the level that’s sort of illegal but not really in South Carolina. Combine that fact with state lawmakers who never have been serious about trying to deter drunken driving (hence the law that looks like it prohibits driving with a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level but doesn’t really), and it’s no surprise that more than half of those 601 deaths involved alcohol. Speeding and distracted driving round out the top causes of fatal, as well as nonfatal, wrecks.

So what all of us can do to make our highways safer - even as they continue to deteriorate from lack of maintenance, even as traffic gets increasingly congested due to insufficient capacity - is pretty simple but profoundly important: Don’t drink and drive. Don’t text and drive, or do other things that distract you. Don’t speed. Wear your safety belt. Make sure the kids are in appropriate safety seats. Wear a helmet if you’re on a motorcycle - or a bicycle for that matter, even though the chance of splattering your unhelmeted brain all over the highway is much lower on a bicycle.

To these, the Highway Patrol would add two more items, particularly in the party-time days between now and Labor Day: Call (asterisk)HP or (asterisk)47 if you see someone you suspect is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and go to SCTargetZeroPlan.org and sign a pledge to refrain from driving after drinking, driving too fast and driving without a safety belt …




August 27

The Greenville News on grand jury proceedings

In many counties in South Carolina, your chance of winning at least some money in the lottery is better than that of going before a county grand jury and walking away without being indicted. Greenville defense attorney Steve Henry believes the grand jury process has become “a joke,” and he and some other defense attorneys think it’s time for the state Legislature to level the playing field in the closed proceedings that determine whether a defendant will be indicted and therefore face a trial on criminal charges.

Since 2011, Greenville County grand juries have returned true bills 99.9 percent of the time on more than 18,700 indictments, Greenville News reporter Romando Dixson found when reviewing records from the county Clerk of Court’s office. Greenville County is not unique in this area; in fact, in most places in South Carolina grand juries indict almost all of the people who come before them.

One significant way to bring about a more level playing field and ensure transparency is to record the proceedings of grand juries. Even when the information is not made public - and that often is the case - the very nature of having these closed proceedings recorded can increase confidence in the fairness of the process.

Some criminal defense lawyers in South Carolina are pushing to have county grand jury proceedings recorded. “The Legislature could fix this in a heartbeat,” Henry told The Greenville News. “All they would have to do is require grand jury transcripts or minutes. It would take one time - one time - of having this process recorded and this would be over.”

Grand juries operate outside of the public eye for sound reasons. On occasion a grand jury will conduct a months-long investigation before an indictment is brought, and the closed proceedings help safeguard information and keep the target of the investigation from changing behavior or trying to destroy evidence. Sometimes that investigation doesn’t produce any solid evidence of a crime and the case is closed. The secret nature of this work can protect the reputation of innocent people.

The grand jury also serves as a speed bump on the road from the arrest of someone on a criminal charge to the trial in an open courtroom. The proceedings are designed to require the prosecutor to present some evidence that a crime has been committed before taking a case to trial. The process is designed to protect an innocent person from unjust accusations.

Dixson found in his review of indictments that in 2014, a Charleston County grand jury reviewed 6,366 indictments and returned only seven no bills. In Florence County the grand jury considered 1,285 indictments in 2014 and returned only one no bill.

The Oregon Legislature spent time earlier this year considering a bill to allow grand jury proceedings to be recorded as they are in about 30 other states. Some of the same arguments were used there that are heard in South Carolina: Namely, having recorded testimony allows defense lawyers to identify mistakes or abuse. In that state, the bill that was under consideration would have required a record of all grand jury proceedings except for deliberations and voting, according to The Oregonian newspaper …

Having a transcript or recording of a grand jury proceeding would allow a defense attorney to challenge an indictment or grand jury process by building evidence of abuse or irregularity if there is reason to believe such occurred.

The Legislature should reopen the debate about recording grand-jury testimony in South Carolina.



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