YORK COUNTY, S.C. - A York County judge is considering whether to toss out hundreds of indictments after defense attorneys argued a grand jury didn’t give people fair hearings.
Defense attorneys packed a courtroom Friday morning for a hearing in the case.
Twenty-seven York County defense lawyers signed on to a motion asking a judge to throw out more than 900 indictments against 418 people charged with crimes.
"From human capability, I guess we would have to assume that there was not a fair and reasonable hearing on these indictments," said attorney Leland Greeley, who argued for the defense lawyers who filed the motion.
A police officer and a sheriff's deputy were called to testify on Friday.
Detective Phil Tripp, with the Rock Hill Police Department, presented 343 indictments that day in June.
Lt. Tim Hager, with the York County Sheriff’s Office, presented 277.
The defense lawyers argued that, since Tripp and Hager didn't personally investigate those cases, they only knew about them from what the paperwork said.
Once a month, 18 people on York County's grand jury meet to decide which cases have enough evidence to support criminal charges. They hear briefly from police officers on details of each case.
Usually, they true bill all or nearly all the cases.
On June 14, the grand jury was presented with 904 charges, which is triple the number it usually hears in a day.
According to a motion filed the defense lawyers, that's too many charges for the grand jury to do its job effectively.
The motion states that, on June 14 the grand jury sat from 8:30 a.m. until 6:20 p.m., which averages out to just 39 seconds reviewing each case.
The jury true-billed all 904 cases.
The defense lawyers claim reviewing so many cases so quickly amounts to rubber-stamping, not a serious review of the facts.
The lawyers filing the complaint called the situation a "deprivation of due process for the defendants."
The motion asks a judge to quash all the indictments from the grand jury meeting in June and seat a new grand jury to rehear each case.
York County resident Anthony Kennedy, is one of the defendants who was indicted in June. He faces a shoplifting charge.
"Thirty-nine seconds? You're gonna review a case in 39 seconds?" Kennedy said. "That's not enough attention to each case. Bottom line."
Kevin Brackett, the 16th Circuit Solicitor, said it's important to clarify that the grand jury didn't hear 904 separate cases, but 904 individual charges.
"They give them summary of the facts, and as soon as the grand jury hears enough information to believe that this is evidence to support the charges, they can stop them," Brackett said.
For example, Brackett said, if two men are charged with breaking into 30 cars, that's 60 indictments. It may take a minute or less for an officer to tell the grand jury what happened in the case.
"The facts can easily be detailed in a minute or less," Brackett said.
Brackett said the lawyers who filed the motion had "no real understanding of how the grand jury works," and called the motion a “non-issue.”
Brackett also took issue with the claim that 39 seconds is too short a time in which to give an indictment a fair hearing, pointing out that it's not 904 cases, or people, but 904 individual charges that were heard, and many cases include multiple charges for the same incident.
He said, for example, the facts of a simple roadside DUI arrest, such as who, when and where and the results of a testof blood-alcohol level, can be explained in seconds.
Brackett said most cases need little time to show probable cause for the charges, which is all a grand jury does.
"(Defense lawyers) take that faulty assumption and generate this 39 seconds statistical conclusion that they then use like a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination," Brackett said.
Brackett also said he sat in on some pleas this week and used his cellphone to time how long it took prosecutors to give the facts of a case.
He said it was between 30 seconds and a minute each time when someone's fate was being decided.
Circuit Judge Dan Hall said he'll rule on the motion in about two weeks.
During the June session, the grand jury heard more than double the number of cases it usually hears.
Brackett said that was because there was a backlog of cases that needed to be presented.
An issue was raised, however, over proposed changes in how preliminary hearings are conducted.
The judge questioned Brackett about whether he increased the number of cases sent to the grand jury, knowing that many of the defendants would likely not have preliminary hearings.
Brackett said no, that was not the reason.
Kennedy said that a grand jury that heard hundreds of cases in just hours could not have known enough about them.
He was glad to hear that the cases could at least be reviewed again, and possibly tossed out.
"I hope it kind of wakes them up a little bit and lets them know that you just can't get away with anything anymore," he said.
When Brackett was asked what would happen if a judge throws out the indictments, his response was, "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. That's never happened anywhere, to my knowledge."
The judge will decide if more than 400 people who were indicted in June were denied due process. He will also consider the defense’s motion.
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