EXCLUSIVE: Mayor wants independent review following young mother’s killing

cleblanc@thestate.comJuly 13, 2013 

— Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said he will organize an independent panel this week to review law enforcement practices after a Columbia woman was killed by repeat offenders who critics say should have been in jail.

The review will include whether police should continue to seek approval from prosecutors before getting arrest warrants, Benjamin said Friday.

The panel would have a broader task, as well: to recommend ways of keeping career criminals in jail and off the street once they’re arrested, Benjamin said.

“We’ve got to stop the revolving door,” he said, citing 10 charges Columbia officers have filed against Lorenzo Young and his release by judges despite repeated violent offenses.

Young is one of two 18-year-olds and a 16-year-old charged in the July 1 death of Kelly Hunnewell, a 33-year-old mother of four school-age children who was gunned down while working at a bagel shop bakery.

“Lorenzo Young is a career criminal,” Benjamin said, criticizing state law on setting bond for people who are repeat offenders. “He never should have been on the street.”

The mayor’s announcement to The State newspaper of a review panel comes on the heels of strong criticism by the victims of a related home burglary and a witness to that crime who say police should have arrested Young as soon as they confirmed his fingerprint was on the broken door of a Heathwood home that was robbed.

That happened June 18, 13 days before Hunnewell’s death, according to a police timeline released to the newspaper.

“I feel like the blood of that mother is calling out for justice for her children,” one of the victims told the newspaper Thursday. “There should be no excuses. The system failed someone miserably.”

Internal review

The city’s interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, already is reviewing his department’s practice of relying so heavily on legal advice from the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s office before police seek arrest warrants in major cases, Benjamin said.

That policy dates to the 1970s with then-solicitor Jim Anders, who was the first to institute it across the judicial circuit in Richland and Kershaw counties.

But state law makes clear that police – not prosecutors – are to take their evidence for a warrant to a magistrate judge. The judge decides whether a warrant is merited based on sworn testimony from police. There is no law that requires prior authorization by prosecutors, though many judicial circuits have come to use that practice to help strengthen cases and improve conviction rates.

When a reporter first asked the mayor Friday about an independent panel, Benjamin, whose re-election campaign places strong emphasis on public safety, said, “I’m interested in seeing what the chief comes back with.”

Later, Benjamin said. “An independent review of our policies and procedures is always healthy. I support that and I will champion it.”

He also supports legislation that would give judges more authority to revoke bond in violent crime cases if a suspect is charged with a subsequent crime. Benjamin wrote a letter in April to the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee asking him to back the bill. A version of the legislation has been approved by the Senate.

Circuit Court Judge D’Andrea Benjamin, the mayor’s wife, set bond at $35,000 in November 2011 for one of the defendants in Hunnewell’s slaying who was facing violent crime charges.

In January, Circuit Judge Allison Lee consolidated $240,000 in bonds on a series of violent offenses against Young, the other defendant. She reduced bond to $175,000 despite the objection of a prosecutor, Solicitor Dan Johnson said. Young made bail and was released. Three months earlier, after a motion by the solicitor’s office, Circuit Judge James Barber seemingly had stopped Young’s cycle of arrests and release on bonds by revoking all his bonds.

The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said Friday his legislation would have “slammed the door” on Young and other career criminals. “The Hunnewell murder is a prime example” of what the bill would address, Limehouse said.

The other two candidates for mayor said the handling of the burglary case and its effect on the Hunnewell investigation points to the need for better coordination between the city’s police and prosecutors.

“The police department should have the authority to pursue warrants against criminals without having to go through the solicitor’s office,” said Councilman Moe Baddourah. “Right now, I don’t know that they did anything wrong,” he said of police, adding he hopes to get a briefing from the city manager.

Candidate Larry Sypolt, a former Richland County deputy and narcotics detective, said he believes police had plenty of evidence in the burglary to get a warrant against Young.

The fingerprint, an eyewitness and the car that was at the home amount to a “golden horseshoe” of evidence, Sypolt said. “They should have been out the door (to make an arrest). They should be finding ways to get him off the street. You don’t throw the case in the filing cabinet because you’re not getting the answers (from prosecutors) that you want.”

He said, she said

Benjamin said he and Santiago have reviewed the case file of the June 11 burglary that happened in one of Columbia’s most upscale neighborhoods. Benjamin said he stands by the actions of the officers.

“The cops are doing their jobs. Everyone else should do their jobs as well,” the mayor said. Asked if he is referring to the county prosecutor’s office, Benjamin replied, “I’m talking about everybody.”

The two law enforcement agencies have disagreed publicly about whether there was sufficient evidence to arrest Young.

Detective Nick Scott and assistant solicitor April Sampson met to discuss the case on June 20. That was 11 days before Hunnewell was shot multiple times. The police department and the prosecutors’ office provided the newspaper with timelines and narratives supporting their actions in the case.

In that June 20 meeting, police say, the investigator said he gave all the information he had on Young and a co-defendant in the burglary, Rolanda Coleman, to Sampson.

The prosecutor said there was enough evidence to charge Coleman because the witness, a neighbor, had identified Coleman as being one of two women she saw in the driveway. Police knew by the meeting with the assistant solicitor that Coleman and Young were in a relationship and had a child together.

But Sampson said that a fingerprint on a broken door alone was not enough to charge Young, according to the police account of the meeting.

A timeline provided by Solicitor Johnson indicates the detective asked for a warrant only against Coleman and agreed with Sampson that more evidence against Young was needed.

Scott did not ask “about probable cause for Lorenzo Young,” according to Johnson’s office. “He (Scott) had already decided that he did not have enough probable cause.”

Johnson said his prosecutor was providing advice on the strength of police evidence. “A print, in and of itself, does not tell you when somebody was there,” Johnson said. “The officer acknowledged that.”

But police say that by the time of the meeting, one of the owners of the Heathwood house had confirmed that he did not know Young and that Young did not have permission to be on the property.

Interim chief Santiago defends his officer’s action.

“Essentially, before the murder happened, we had all the evidence we felt was probable cause for the warrant,” he said. “We got denied authorization for the warrant. Then after the murder we didn’t offer up any new evidence and they decided to give us a warrant.”

Failings, questions persist

The Heathwood neighbor who saw the burglary as well as the victims met with State newspaper reporters Thursday with their attorney present. They asked to not be identified because they fear gang retaliation and now have guns for home protection.

The neighbor said she told police she saw a champagne-colored Saturn in the driveway June 11, when the break-in happened. The witness, who has a criminal justice background, said she followed the car that had two young women inside and spoke with a 911 dispatcher, asking for help.

To the neighbor’s knowledge, the 911 dispatcher never called for an officer to join her pursuit of the Saturn.

Police traced the license tag and found the car. The witness went with officers to identify the Saturn. But the officers never sought a search warrant for it or asked the owner for permission to search it, the neighbor said.

Beyond that series of events, Young and a co-defendant in Hunnewell’s slaying, Troy Stevenson, were out of jail on bonds from prior violent crimes. Both men are 18 years old. The third suspect is a juvenile.

Young was freed in January when his bonds were consolidated for charges of first-degree burglary and a series of other violent offenses. First-degree burglary carries a sentence of up to life in prison.

Between July 2012 and October 2012, Young had been arrested and re-arrested and had bond set and re-set several times for separate crimes, records show. The mayor said he has seen arrest records that show Young had been charged 14 times by Columbia, Richland County and Forest Acres.

Stevenson was free on the November 2011 bond on charges of first-degree burglary, assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature and petit larceny, records show.

The neighbor in the Heathwood burglary is outraged at the police department’s version of events.

She said that from the very beginning police knew there were three people involved in the burglary. The witness said that when she arrived home, she saw two young women in the Saturn with the car trunk facing the door of the house.

The door had been broken open and was slightly ajar, the witness told the newspaper. The women told her they were looking “for their piano teacher, Martha.”

After she returned from following the Saturn, she noticed the door was open wider. That means someone else had been in the house.

“First and foremost, there are four kids who should get answers,” the witness told The State newspaper Thursday. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Hunnewell should be here today. The community needs answers. What went wrong? Who did what? Whoever did whatever it was, please own it. Please just own it and change. We need change.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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