After slayings

After two slayings, SC judge now says she ‘thinks a lot more carefully’ about bonds

abeam@thestate.comNovember 5, 2013 

— Circuit Court Judge Alison Lee said she now “thinks a lot more carefully” about her decisions after she lowered the bonds of two accused violent criminals who were released from jail only to be arrested again, this time charged with murder.

“The situation has been unfortunate, and I’m very sympathetic to what has occurred,” Lee said Tuesday, making her first public comments since her controversial decisions. “I tried not to let that affect my ability to clearly and cogently do my job.

“I will say that I ask a lot more questions, and I think a lot more carefully before I ultimately make a decision.”

Lee is running unopposed for re-election as a judge to the state’s 5th Judicial Circuit, made up of Richland and Kershaw counties. She testified Tuesday before the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission, a panel of lawmakers and lawyers charged with vetting the qualifications of candidates to be judges.

The panel unanimously found Lee qualified, clearing the path for her to be re-elected early next year to a six-year term.

Richland County authorities – including Sheriff Leon Lott – criticized Lee after she lowered the bonds of Lorenzo Young and Dequan Vereen, two men jailed on violent criminal charges. Both men posted bail and were released.

Vereen later was charged with killing 51-year-old Robert Jewell at a Richland County convenience store.

Young was arrested and charged with killing Kelly Hunnewell, a 33-year-old mother of four, as she was beginning her shift at a bagel bakery off Covenant Road.

Hunnewell’s slaying led to a protest rally at the State House demanding reform of the state’s bond system for accused criminals.

Asked to explain her decision to lower the bonds of Young and Vereen, Lee said, “My premise is that they are innocent” unless proven guilty.

Lee said Young had no prior record, “was a young man, attending Midlands Tech, he lived with his parents and had been a lifelong resident of the county.” She said she thought it was appropriate for Young to have the opportunity to get out of jail “since he had no prior record.”

“The Constitution says he is entitled to a bond unless it is a capital offense. So, I start with that premise and go from there,” Lee said.

Similarly, Lee said Vereen “had children, was employed at a McDonald’s and was on a track for being a trainee to be a manager. He had no prior record, his family members were there, and he had ties to the community.

“There was nothing to show that he should not be given the opportunity to be released,” she said.

Young and Vereen both were facing charges of attempted murder when they made bail, leading commission member Pete Strom – a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina who now is a criminal defense lawyer – to ask if Lee considered a suspect’s potential danger to the community when considering bond requests.

“I’m always concerned if someone is a danger to the community. It’s hard to evaluate what the danger is on occasion,” Lee said. “I will say that I do now pay a lot more attention to the types of crimes and whether they are violent offense as defined by the Legislature.”

The panel had mostly friendly questions for Lee, noting she followed the law when deciding to lower the bonds for Young and Vereen.

“As for the protection of the community, that responsibility belongs to the police,” said state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, a commission member and criminal defense attorney.

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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