Governor issues order to prevent illegal early releases from SC prisons

Published: Oct. 20, 2023 at 7:41 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - After a convicted murderer was illegally released from a South Carolina prison earlier this year, Gov. Henry McMaster wants to ensure it does not happen again.

But some critics argue the governor is overstepping his authority in taking action to do that.

In a letter sent Thursday, McMaster directed South Carolina solicitors to give the attorney general 10 days’ notice before they file any early release motions for inmates.

He wrote that is intended to give the attorney general’s office time to review the motions and determine if those early releases are legal before inmates are set free.

In the letter, McMaster wrote, “… unfortunately, recent events have revealed that it is not sufficient simply to arrest, convict, and incarcerate criminals, but we must also ensure that they stay in prison.”

The new order stems from an incident earlier this year surrounding convicted murderer Jeroid Price.

A secret early release order signed by a since-retired Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning and agreed to by the Richland County Solicitor Byron Gipson set Price free from prison 16 years early in March.

Days later, the state Supreme Court ruled his release was not legal and invalidated the order, sparking a nearly three-month-long, nationwide search for Price, who was eventually found in New York City and returned to custody.

The governor cited the state constitution and state Supreme Court rulings as his authority for issuing this order.

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who prosecutes cases in Calhoun, Dorchester, and Orangeburg counties, disagrees that the governor can instruct the attorney general and solicitors on how to handle criminal matters.

“I don’t want to get into a dispute with the governor because we are on the same side on this issue. He is 100% right, and I appreciate his leadership in calling out the Jeroid Price case,” said Pascoe, who prosecuted Price when he was convicted in 2003.

Pascoe believes reforming the way South Carolina selects its judges is the final resolution to the matter.

South Carolina is one of two states in which the legislature elects judges. A 10-member screening panel made up of lawyers and legislators, who are typically also lawyers themselves, screens candidates and whittles the field for each seat down to up to three finalists from which the General Assembly chooses.

That process has drawn criticism that judges might rule more favorably in cases in which a lawyer-legislator comes before them.

“We’ve got to get judicial reform in this state, and I’m glad that the governor and the attorney general are with the solicitors in doing that,” Pascoe said.

Price’s attorney is one of the General Assembly’s lawyer-legislators, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford.

Rutherford, a Richland County Democrat, firmly believes the governor is overstepping his authority in issuing this directive.

“It’s like a game of thrones, but none of it, to me, is valid, and none of it should be valid to these solicitors, who are elected by the people in their counties, in their circuits, to do the job of prosecuting cases,” he said.

Rutherford also sits on the panel that screens judicial candidates and disagrees with Pascoe’s belief about judicial reform.

But he said he is concerned this order could open the door for the governor to try to direct solicitors on how and when to prosecute cases.

“Now the governor’s going to tell the attorney general and the solicitors what to do?” Rutherford said. “It’s disturbing, and I think other people should be outraged by it as well. What we don’t have is a king, and I think that the governor’s trying to assert himself as king here.”

The governor’s office declined to respond to Rutherford’s comments.

Pascoe said he does not share those concerns about the governor interfering in solicitors’ work and has been reassured by the governor’s staff that would not happen, noting McMaster himself is a former prosecutor.

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