Panel on bond reform supports police, prosecutor cooperation

nophillips@thestate.comOctober 8, 2013 

A Columbia panel tasked with making recommendations for improving the criminal bond system wants an early legal assistance program between local police and prosecutors to continue.

The program, which has been in place in the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office since 1975, allows police officers to seek advice from attorneys before making an arrest. However, it came under scrutiny after the July 1 killing of 33-year-old Kelly Hunnewell, who was working alone in a commercial bakery when she was shot.

In that case, one of the three accused killers had been identified as a burglary suspect days earlier but had remained on the streets after a Columbia police investigator and an assistant solicitor failed to reach an agreement on issuing an arrest warrant for him.

The victims of the burglary said they were outraged that Lorenzo Young, 18, had not been arrested 11 days before the shooting after his fingerprint was found at their Heathwood home. Interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago and 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson blamed each other’s agency for the breakdown.

The Police Department said the assistant solicitor would not authorize the officer to write an arrest warrant because there was not enough evidence to convict Young of burglary. But Johnson said the investigator did not ask for the warrant.

Hunnewell’s death was a tipping point for community outrage over how criminals are given bonds so they can be released from jail as they await their trials. Two of the three teens charged with murder were on bond when she was killed. The public outcry led Mayor Steve Benjamin to organize the 12-member panel on violent crime and bond reform.

Former SLED Chief Robert Stewart said Monday he wanted a list of recommendations ready by early November. Originally, the panel planned to have the recommendations finalized by the end of this summer.

While the Hunnewell case led to the panel’s organization, members said they would not make recommendations about the handling of specific cases or assign blame in cases.

“Out of an abundance of caution for an ongoing, active criminal case, we decided that was outside the purview of this panel,” Stewart said.

It is likely the early legal assistance program will be endorsed by the panel even though one member said it should be suspended indefinitely. The program has support from Stewart, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Johnny Gasser, a former 5th Circuit prosecutor who now is a defense attorney.

But at least one panel member, Columbia attorney Robert Bolchoz, said early legal assistance should be suspended so police officers can act quickly in removing criminal suspects from the community.

“With these guys on bond who have long arrest records, I would prefer to have them arrested and then let the system work it out,” Bolchoz said.

But Lott said the criminal justice system works best when police and prosecutors are on the same page. And, if the officer and prosecutor disagree with each other, they always can take their arguments higher up their chains of command, he said.

“The prosecutors are always going to want more, more, more and the cop is always going to want less, less, less,” Lott said.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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