Editor’s note: This is the fifth in an occasional series of stories on understanding the criminal justice system.
As a defendant’s case makes its way through the legal system, there is someone working with law enforcement to represent the people (or the state) against whom the alleged crime was committed. Some states call them district attorneys, but South Carolina calls them solicitors.
South Carolina is divided into 16 judicial circuits. The Second Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office includes Aiken, Barnwell and Bamberg counties and is headed by Solicitor J. Strom Thurmond Jr.
There are 12 assistants in the office with Thurmond, each with an average caseload of 100 to 150 cases at any given time, according to Assistant Solicitor Beth Ann Young. In addition to prosecuting cases, the Solicitor’s Office has a number of diversion programs such as pre-trial intervention and juvenile arbitration, and assists in the investigative process by giving opinions to law enforcement, as requested.
Representing the state
The Solicitor’s Office typically comes into play within two weeks after an arrest, when the warrants are transferred to the clerk of court’s office by the bond court, according to Young. The investigating agency must also have their General Sessions packet, which includes a report and any photos, to the Solicitor’s Office within 15 days of the arrest.
In certain cases, a solicitor is involved as early as the bond hearing. Law enforcement may ask them to attend and argue in favor of a high bond, according to Young. This is usually done in a case that is high profile, or for a repeat offender.
While paperwork is filled out at the first appearance, a certain track for the case is checked on one form, Young said. The options are 180 days, 270 days, 365 days or exempt.
“The goal of checking a track is to have the case completely disposed of within that time period,” Young said. Normally, 180 days is the selected track.
A defendant has the right to request a preliminary hearing.
“Basically, it’s a probable cause hearing where a magistrate judge determines that there’s enough probable cause to bind the case over, send it on to the grand jury,” Young said. During the hearing, an officer goes through his report for the judge.
“It gives the defense attorneys an opportunity to find out a little more information about the case at an early stage,” Young said.
A preliminary hearing is not required for an indictment, and a defendant can be indicted before a preliminary hearing is held, according to Young. A defendant is typically advised during their bond hearing that they are supposed to request a preliminary hearing within 10 days.
A case is indicted, ideally, between the first and second appearances, according to Young. It could be delayed in some cases that require test results, such as drug cases.
A grand jury meets once every month and is comprised of 18 county residents.
“All the solicitors have given their indictments, so they (the grand jury) have a list of cases,” Young said. “Each law enforcement agency will usually send one representative to present all their cases.”
The only people in the room for the proceeding are the jury and law enforcement.
“It’s secret. We don’t go in the grand jury room,” Young said.
At the end of the day, the grand jury will make a decision on each case and issue either a “true bill” or “no bill.” If it’s no bill, the grand jury didn’t think there was enough probable cause, and at that point the case is over, Young said. If they issue a true bill, the case is sent back to the solicitor to prepare for a plea or trial.
The majority of cases end up with a guilty plea, according to Young.
“Otherwise, the system would bog down. Guilty pleas are more common than not,” she said. “A lot of times, in terms of negotiating, we will offer a plea deal. It can either be, ‘Plead to this case and get five years, or plead to this case and get two years followed by five years probation.’ Or it can be just plead to these charges.”
A solicitor typically has an idea of what kind of plea offer they want to make by the second appearance, she said. A defendant’s criminal history plays a significant role, and the defense attorney and solicitor may go back and forth negotiating the conditions of the plea deal. Often, the solicitor sets an “expiration date” for a deal.
“That’s another method to try to get a case resolved in a timely manner, because it puts an end date,” Young said. “There has to be a decision made by that point.”
If a defendant doesn’t accept a plea offer, then they proceed to trial or plead guilty to the original charges and receive a sentence from the court, according to Young.
“In cases where we have an exceptionally strong case or we’re getting ready for a trial, the plea offer is usually withdrawn or we don’t make one, because they’re not entitled to a plea offer,” she said.
A common misunderstanding is that anyone who pleads guilty was given a plea deal by the solicitor, Young said.
“Every time someone pleads guilty, it doesn’t mean they have a plea deal,” she said. “It means they’re entering a guilty plea instead of a jury trial.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.