COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Public defenders and prosecutors in South Carolina say they are close to a compromise on uniform rules allowing defendants time to prepare for trials but allowing prosecutors to move forward only when they are ready.
Solicitors, the chief elected prosecutors, would still get to decide what cases are called and their order, but they would have to publish the list no later than 35 days before a court term starts, according to a bill being worked on in subcommittees in both the House and Senate.
The compromise also limits to three the number of times prosecutors can require defendants to come to the courthouse for status checks on their cases. Defense attorneys said the updates were tough on defendants, who had to schedule an entire weekday away from work or other responsibilities. If they didn’t show up, they could be thrown in jail for failing to appear.
“Some of those people - our clients - have lost their jobs,” 16th Circuit Chief Public Defender Harry Dest said.
The rules are being worked on seven years after the South Carolina Supreme Court took control of when criminal court cases are called from prosecutors.
Dest told House lawmakers at a Wednesday subcommittee hearing that he still needs to work on some tweaks with his fellow public defenders. Eighth Circuit Solicitor David Stumbo said prosecutors for the most part are happy with the compromise.
“We’re as close as we’ve ever been,” Stumbo said.
The compromise would have the solicitor create a plan to put cases on the docket after consulting with the judicial circuit’s judges, chief public defender and at least one private defense attorney.
Prosecutors wouldn’t have to announce the order of the cases until a court term started - just the cases that could be called. Dest said that was the biggest stumbling block for fellow defense attorneys, who also think prosecutors should have to set the order in which cases are called in advance.
The proposal does allow defense attorneys a set procedure to have a case removed from a docket if they aren’t ready for trial or there is some other conflict.
It also assures uniform rules across all 16 South Carolina judicial circuits. Some defense attorneys complained that although some circuits were well organized, in others, a case could suddenly be called for trial with maybe just a weekend to prepare.
“In many parts of the state you have little notice,” Dest said.
Stumbo said prosecutors need to maintain control of their dockets because they are required to have the burden of proof, so they must make sure all witnesses are ready and available. Although a defendant could appeal a guilty verdict by saying his lawyer was forced to go to trial before being ready, an unprepared prosecutor who ends up with a not guilty verdict doesn’t legally have that option, Stumbo said.
The rules don’t change guilty pleas, which can be scheduled any time.
They also allow defense attorneys to request status hearings when they want to argue pretrial motions or get an update as to why as prosecutor hasn’t scheduled a case for trial yet.
Both sides hope to return to lawmakers with a final compromise before the end of April.
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