When Bill Whittle retired 25 years ago, he didn't think he would find another calling – or stand by and watch some of the biggest moments in Aiken County history unfold in the courtrooms of the judicial center.
Whittle had retired after working in the Aiken post office for 32 years when he was asked to fill in for the chief bailiff at the Aiken County Judicial Center, who had fallen ill. Whittle had never served on jury duty or even sat in on a case at the courthouse.
“I never got a chance to come up and see what was going on at the courthouse,” he said. “The poor guy didn't make it back, so I fell in next in line and got the regular job.”
Being a bailiff is part-time work, which Whittle said fit well with his retirement. They work 30 hours per week, three weeks per month. In the courthouse are nine bailiffs: Three in family court and six split between civil court and criminal court.
While TV may have you believe the courtroom bailiff is a wisecrack with a badge and gun who cuts up with the judge, Whittle said bailiffs get confused with the deputies responsible for court security.
“We're responsible for maintaining order in the court,” he said. “The chief bailiff makes sure all the bases are covered, and he's responsible to the judge to make sure the judge's needs are met.”
The day begins at about 8 a.m. with preparation of the courtroom and jury rooms and getting the jurors where they need to be.
“I meet with the visiting judge and tell him our normal procedure during court, and ask him what his requests are,” Whittle said. “Some judges don't mind if people move around in the courtroom. Some don't want anybody going in or out during a guilty plea or when there's an attorney addressing the jury.”
'You could read a jury'
Though he never came to the courthouse before becoming a bailiff, Whittle said he's received an education in the legal system since then.
“At one time, when I first came here, we were old Aiken. You could read a jury,” he said. “They were mostly local – been around here a long time. Now we have such a diverse group of people coming into Aiken from all over the country. It's unpredictable. I can't predict one out of five (cases). Sometimes, I can predict if they're guilty or not guilty.”
Whittle said murder trials can take up a lot of time. During one trial, jurors were housed in an Aiken hotel. Agents with the State Law Enforcement Division took the jurors to lunch and back to the hotel, removed the televisions and telephones from their hotel rooms, and took them to restaurants to eat dinner.
The jurors were allowed to watch TV in one room, and usually one of the bailiffs or a SLED agent changed the channel, Whittle recalled. If a juror needed an item from a store, one of the bailiffs would go and get it.
“They can sequester the jurors if it's a high-profile case and they don't want jurors exposed to outside stuff,” Whittle said. “It's seldom that you do that.”
In a civil case that had gone to the jury, the jury came back deadlocked at about 11 p.m. on a Friday.
“The judge wanted to get a verdict,” Whittle said. “He didn't want to send them home for the weekend, try the case through the weekend or get another jury and start back on Monday. He insisted that we finish that case.”
After reading the Allen charge (a verdict-urging instruction), the judge sent the jury back to deliberate. They returned a verdict at about 1 a.m.
In those days, the bailiffs were allowed to driver jurors home, as they had to ensure the jury made it back safely. Whittle said it's just one of many ways the court system has changed. Bailiffs were also armed when he started the job; however, they didn't have the arresting powers that courthouse deputies have.
“I was reluctant to carry a firearm,” Whittle said. “So they said, 'You don't have to carry if you don't want to.'”
'You see a lot of weeping'
Whittle has served in each of the courts but said he prefers criminal court.
“Civil court can get a little boring. It's just wrecks and land disputes, somebody injured in a wreck. It gets a little bit dry,” he said. “In criminal court, you have some interesting cases. I hate to see these sexually-involved cases, from the jury standpoint. They have to go into graphic detail and get young children on the stand. The jurors have to listen to that, and it's so uncomfortable for some of the people.”
A criminal courtroom is filled with a barrage of emotions.
“You see a lot of weeping,” Whittle said. “Some people come up knowing that their loved one is guilty, and when they plead guilty, they know they're gonna go to prison for a long time. They're not prepared for the final sentence, and when it is handed down, one side thinks it's too light, the other side think it's too difficult.”
In the most heated moments in the courtroom, people have cried out, screamed out and one woman even passed out.
“We had one judge there, he just continued with court while they were trying to get that person,” he said. “When (the paramedics) came in, he chastised them for being so noisy and he was trying to have court. I think he got the impression that the lady might have been faking her passing out.”
Though the faces all around the courthouse have changed over 25 years, Whittle said that's his favorite part of his job. “I enjoy working with these people, but I enjoy working with the public, too,” he said. “You've got your people that complain, but you have to let them have their say, and then you can tell them you're gonna try to do something to help them.”
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.