Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood says an understaffed and underfunded court system allows violent offenders, including accused killers, to languish in jail for years without trial. Some, he says, are released on bond for months or years until trial – all the while committing other crimes.
Underwood blames the slow courts and repeat offenders for much of the violence that is plaguing Chester County, including gang activity and death threats against himself, his deputies and their families.
Court records show Underwood is right – and many court officials agree.
Eight accused killers in Chester County are free on bond awaiting trial in cases backlogged as long as 10 years. In neighboring Lancaster County, more than a dozen people charged with murder are free on bond as they wait for their day in court.
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Some of those charged with murder – even those with previous violent convictions and after later committing other crimes – were released on bonds as low as $1,500 pending trials that still haven’t happened.
Underwood calls the system “Easy Street” for criminals, while he and his officers risk their lives and receive death threats from gangs. The danger is so real, he says, that his wife, Magistrate Judge Angel Underwood, wore a protective vest in Friday’s Chester Christmas Parade.
Since the Nov. 4 drive-by shooting death of Chester City Councilman Odell Williams, allegedly at the hands of gang members, Sheriff Underwood has demanded more money from the County Council to hire more deputies.
Two of the five men charged with murder and accessory to murder in connection with Williams’ killing were free on bond for charges including attempted murder. Both had been arrested for other alleged crimes after making bond but before the Williams killing, but they remained free.
“We need to get these guys in court and get them sentenced,” Underwood said. “I got people sitting in my jail who committed murders two years ago. We need to stiffen our dockets, stiffen our courts.”
According to records with the Chester County Clerk of Court and the State Law Enforcement Division, 12 murder cases are pending in Chester, not including the Williams case. In only four of those cases, which involve killings in 2014 and 2013, the defendants are in jail without bond pending trial.
The courts backlog is worse in Lancaster County, which is in the same judicial circuit as Chester County.
Citing more than 4,000 pending criminal cases in Lancaster County, Circuit Court Judge Brian Gibbons issued an order earlier this year that stripped the Sixth Circuit Solicitor’s Office of its exclusive authority to schedule trials there. Now, the judge’s office and the Lancaster County Clerk of Court’s office are handling the docket.
Even the prosecutors who handle cases in Chester and Lancaster counties admit the system as it stands is broken.
Sixth Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield does not shirk his role in the court backlog.
“It is pretty obvious that my way has not been the best way,” Barfield said, “but it takes all parts of the system to get it fixed. Chester and Lancaster need more people in the court system – resources – to fix this.”
The longest-pending Chester County murder cases dates back to 2004. Terry Pendergrass, 38, was charged with murder in connection with a stabbing death. He is serving a 12-year prison sentence for a 2006 conviction for assault and battery with intent to kill, but he still has not stood trial for the killing, and the case remains pending.
In 2008, Maurice Douglas, 33, was charged with murder in connection with the shooting death of a man during an armed robbery. He spent more than a year in jail under a $200,000 bond, which was lowered to $125,000, but he remained jailed. In 2010, a judge lowered Douglas’ bond to $15,000, and Douglas put up $1,500 to gain his freedom.
Since his release, with the murder charge still pending, Douglas has been convicted on charges of criminal domestic violence, failure to comply with police, giving police false information and disorderly conduct.
Antonio Heath, 24, and Theodore Heath, 23, were teenagers when they were charged with murder and assault with intent to kill in connection with a September 2009 drive-by shooting.
Antonio Heath was on probation from a weapons conviction at the time. He was released on $100,000 bond in December 2009, records show. While on bond, he was convicted of drug offenses and given time served, then arrested for driving offenses.
Theodore Heath was freed on $10,000 bond in 2010 and almost immediately arrested again on drug charges. He was released on $50,000 bond in 2011, and ordered to house arrest pending trial, bond papers show. Still, he was arrested for an open container violation in 2013.
State law gives defendants the right to ask a judge to set a bond. When cases languish for months or years, prosecutors can oppose bond requests, citing the threat to the community, but judges have to consider the time a defendant has spent in jail waiting for trial.
“We oppose bond in murder cases, but we can’t keep someone in jail indefinitely without a trial,” said Sixth Circuit Solicitor-elect Randy Newman, who was elected in November after Barfield chose not to seek re-election.
Older cases that have sat without movement for years need to be looked at again, prosecutors say, to see if they should consider accepting pleas to reduced charges or dismiss them outright.
Tackling the backlog
When it comes to disposing of criminal cases, courts in Chester and Lancaster counties are by far the slowest in the state, judicial records show, while courts in neighboring York County are the fastest.
In York County – which has a population more than twice that of Chester and Lancaster counties combined – there is not a single murder defendant out on bond. York County has only three pending murder cases, one of which is a retrial after a conviction was overturned.
Twenty years ago, though, York County had a huge backlog of criminal cases. In 1993, newly elected 16th Circuit Solicitor Tommy Pope and then-assistant solicitor Kevin Brackett inherited a court backlog worse than what Lancaster and Chester counties face today. York County had 10,000 pending cases in 1993.
Pope, now representing York in the S.C. House, and Brackett, who succeeded him as 16th Circuit solicitor, reduced the backlog to the smallest in the state and have maintained the most efficient system in South Carolina for more than 15 years.
Putting York County’s relatively wealthy court system – which has more than two dozen prosecutors – up against the smaller and poorer Chester and Lancaster system – where just eight prosecutors work – is not a legitimate comparison, Newman said.
“York County has many more lawyers, much more court time, far more resources and dollars,” Newman said. “We are not York County, and we can’t try to resolve this by thinking we will ever have the resources they have.”
The slow courts have caused repeated bond hearings – and the subsequent release of defendants – that Underwood and Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile both say threaten public safety. Many of the defendants facing murder charges in both counties have gang ties, police say.
The courts in Chester and Lancaster counties do not have enough courtroom time, judges or prosecutors to handle the caseload, said Barfield, who as Sixth Circuit solicitor is in charge of all prosecutions in Chester and Lancaster counties, as well as Fairfield County. Small counties with limited resources continue to fall behind in moving all cases, not just murders, he said.
Chester County rarely has more than one week of court scheduled each month, while Lancaster County has one or two weeks a month. In the past two months, Chester and Lancaster prosecutors have disposed of three murder cases with guilty pleas and another with a trial that lasted a week and ended with a guilty verdict.
In Chester this past week, three days of court was needed for the trial of a convicted sex offender – who had been in jail a year – on sex assault allegations against a child. The trial, which required the presence of both Chester’s prosecutors, ended with a guilty verdict and 30-year sentence – but the solicitor’s office could move no murder cases during the week and has no more court time until January.
But even those victories for prosecutors have not dented the huge backlog of cases.
Murder cases involve extensive planning and take up much of the court time of any court week, if the case even goes to trial.
One Chester County murder case dating back to 2010 – which involved two shooting deaths and three people wounded – came to court in October. Police say gangs were involved, and one of the victims was gunned down outside the Chester Regional Medical Center emergency room.
With more than 50 witnesses, prosecutors put in more than six weeks of trial preparation – then the defendant pleaded guilty just as the trial began.
That case also illustrated the bond problem Underwood and others complain about.
A judge allowed defendant William Graham of Chester to be released on bond just two months after he was charged with murder in late 2010. While on bond, Graham was charged with criminal domestic violence, weapons crimes and more, so Barfield sought to have his bond on the murder charge revoked.
A judge allowed Graham to stay free pending trial.
Then, in September, while still free on bond, Graham was charged with attempted murder. That charge was later dismissed, but only after Graham had pleaded guilty to the murder charge and was taken to prison.
Newman, who takes over as solicitor on Jan. 14, said his first priority will be to get a handle on the case backlog and make sure Underwood and other police know that prosecutors and law enforcement must work together.
Sheriff Underwood says the time for talk about what to do about violence, gangs and court backlogs is over. The solution, he says, after so many violent deaths and gangs so brazen they threaten cops, is simple – speedy trials and convictions.
“These criminals, they need to go the penitentiary,” Underwood said. “The public wants it and is demanding it, and so am I.”