EXCLUSIVE: Judge had reduced bond for Columbia man now charged with murder

jmonk@thestate.comSeptember 25, 2013 

Dequan Vereen, charged with killing a man in a Richland County convenience store parking lot last week, was already facing charges of attempted armed robbery and attempted murder but was released from jail in February after Circuit Court Judge Alison Lee lowered his bond.

Lee was in the news this summer, when it was revealed that she had lowered the bond in January for one of three men charged in the July 1 slaying of bagel baker Kelly Hunnewell. Lorenzo Young faced a variety of violent criminal charges when Lee agreed to lower his bond to $175,000 from $240,000.

Lee, who has been nominated for a federal judgeship, both times lowered the bonds over the protests of prosecutors. Hunnewell’s killing launched a huge public outcry over the release of accused violent offenders on bond who are later arrested for another violent crime.

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, whose prosecutors argued against a lower bond in both cases, was measured when asked about the latest case.

But Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott wasn’t.

“Someone in the community is now dead because Vereen was allowed to get out of jail,” Lott said.

A shootout

In the latest case, Lee reduced bond for Vereen to $50,000 from $175,000 in February for charges of attempted murder and armed robbery, according to records on file in the Richland County Clerk of Court’s office.

In November, Vereen, then 18, was in a gun battle with a store clerk he and two armed young men were trying to rob for money and lottery tickets, according to warrants and a Sheriff’s Department incident report.

“He was trying to kill that clerk, only her aim was better than his,” said Lott, whose detectives quickly arrested Vereen when he showed up at Providence Hospital with a bullet wound in his stomach.

Once confronted by detectives, Vereen confessed, according to warrants. Evidence also included a surveillance video from the store.

“I don’t know why he got his bond lowered,” Lott said. “This is someone who has already shown he has no regard for human life – it’s not some property crime.”

Lee, 55, did not respond to a request by The State for comment. Ordinarily, judges do not comment on their actions except in court.

In the November incident, the clerk was unharmed. The robbery took place at the Corner Pantry Store, 5413 Forest Drive.

Once free on bond, according to records, Vereen stayed off law enforcement’s radar – until last week, when he was charged with murder.

Vereen is now being held without bond.

In his latest case, Vereen is charged with murder in last Thursday’s shooting death of Robert Jewell, 51, of Columbia. An alleged accomplice, Tevin Richardson, 21, also is charged with murder.

In that case, two men in a light blue Honda sedan driven by a woman pulled up behind Jewell, who was in a gold Lexus, in front of the Food Fare in the 7400 block of Hunt Club Road off Decker Boulevard. The two men got out of the Honda, and one pulled out a handgun and shot Jewell through the driver’s side window. The incident was captured on the store’s surveillance camera.

‘Not a threat’

According to court records, after the November shootout with the clerk at the Corner Pantry, Richland County Magistrate M. R. Metts set Vereen’s bond for attempted murder at $100,000 and for attempted armed robbery at $75,000.

Columbia attorney Joenathan Chaplin then asked Lee to have Vereen’s bond reduced, according to records in the clerk’s office.

In his Jan. 15 motion to reduce Vereen’s bond, Chaplin argued that Vereen “is not a flight risk, is not a threat to himself or the community, and is unable to adequately and effectively prepare his defense while incarcerated,” according a copy of the motion.

Chaplin could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

At a Feb. 4 hearing, Lee reduced Vereen’s bond to a total of $50,000, records say. A bonding company posted the bond, and Vereen was set free.

Johnson said one of his prosecutors objected to the lowering of the bond in the Feb. 4 hearing.

“We spoke against that, of course we did,” said Johnson, noting it’s standard practice for his prosecutors to object to lowering bond on people charged with violent crimes.

Johnson wanted to make it clear he was not criticizing Lee. It is a violation of legal ethics for lawyers to criticize judges for their actions, he said.

Under the U.S. Constitution, it’s also a defendant’s right to be released on bond unless found to be a threat and to be presumed innocent until found guilty.

‘Revolving door’

Before Hunnewell’s July 1 shooting death, Young faced first-degree burglary charges, and also charges accusing him of possession of a weapon during a violent crime, kidnapping, assault and armed robbery. He was out of jail on one bond when he was rearrested and an additional bond was set.

Despite his multiple arrests and bonds, his bond was lowered.

Hunnewell, a 33-year-old mother of four school-age children, was shot to death at the bakery where she made bagels. Detectives said she was the only employee in the small building at 13 Tommy Circle, off Beltline Boulevard, at the time three men, one of them Young, entered.

Young is back in jail. Bond has been set at $375,000 on three burglary charges, but it has not been set on numerous other charges, including the murder of Hunnewell and kidnapping.

“It’s a revolving door” with many violent offenders, Lott said.

Laura Hudson is a member of a special committee to examine violent crimes in the community, formed by Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin after Hunnewell’s death. The committee has been asked to make recommendations on how to prevent violent offenders from further dangerous behavior.

Hudson said committee members have agreed not to comment publicly on specific cases.

“But in general, I can say that my council is very concerned about judges lowering bonds for people with violent-crime charges against them,” said Hudson, who is executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims’ Council.

The mayor’s special committee is considering recommending the General Assembly pass legislation to give judges more guidelines in how they deal with people charged with violent crimes, as well as possibly requiring people charged with violent crimes who are released on bond to wear ankle bracelets to track their movements, Hudson said.

“It’s amazing how we’ve allowed the alligators to take over the swamp,” Hudson said.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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