City declines to prosecute NAACP leader Randolph for trespassing

jmonk@thestate.comJanuary 13, 2014 

SC NAAACP president Lonnie Randolph (rt.) with defense attorneys Kathy Schillaci and Joe McCulloch after charges against Randolph were dismissed.

JMONK@THESTATE.COM — John Monk

In an unexpected move Monday morning, the city of Columbia dismissed all three misdemeanor disturbance charges against S.C. NAACP president Lonnie Randolph minutes before his jury trial was set to begin in city court.

The charges stemmed from an incident when Randolph, apparently suffering from a diabetic condition, became confused in a Five Points dry cleaners last July 12 and caused a disturbance. Worried employees called police, who charged Randolph with trespassing after notice, public disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

After municipal judge Steedley Bogan confirmed in court Monday that the city had decided to drop the charges, Randolph’s lawyer, Joe McCulloch, held a news conference and said he was “disgusted” with city attorneys for getting the case almost to trial and then dropping it.

McCulloch said it is well-known in legal and medical circles that – in a condition called hypoglycemia – a certain percentage of severe diabetics can become so disoriented so suddenly they appear to be drunk and those people should be given medical treatment and not arrested. Most diabetics have a longer time to feel an attack coming on and can take sugar to counter it, McCulloch said.

McCulloch said that for months, he’d made ample evidence about Randolph’s condition known to city prosecutors.

City prosecutor David Fernandez told Bogan that a major fact in the city’s dropping the charges was that a key witness originally against Randolph was now going to give testimony for Randolph.

According to a letter prosecutors received Friday afternoon from Tripp Penninger, owner of Tripp’s Fine Cleaner’s in Five Points, Penninger no longer wanted to testify for the city.

“In light of the extenuating circumstances, which have now become known, including Dr. Randolph’s diabetic condition, I sympathize with Dr. Randolph’s condition and situation,” Penninger wrote. “In that light, Tripp’s Fine Cleaners does not wish to pursue or prosecute any charges against Dr. Randolph.”

Fernandez said Penninger’s change in position “compromised” the city’s case and was a major factor in the city’s decision to dismiss charges. However, he said officers had probable cause to make their arrest and the city would have made a good showing in court, even with Penninger’s switch.

“We had a story to tell; we had many witnesses ... that simply told a story that did not comport with what they (the defense) are saying,” Fernandez told reporters after court. “The facts were not as clear-cut as the defense would like you all to think.”

Randolph’s trial, had it been held, might have lasted up to three days. Given Randolph’s stature as state NAACP leader and community activist, the case would have been highly publicized and most witnesses would have faced lengthy cross-examinations. The case had become highly politicized – interim police chief Ruben Santiago, for example, said it would be right to drop the charges in light of Randolph’s condition.

Prosecutors had eight or so witnesses, and the defense had more than 15, including several expert medical witnesses. McCulloch also intended to call people in the community who have known Randolph, an optometrist, for years, including Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble and S.C. Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland.

A key defense witness, McCulloch told reporters after court, would have been a University of South Carolina police officer who came upon Randolph a month or so ago having a diabetic episode that snarled traffic at Blossom and Pickens streets. In that case, McCulloch said, the officer would have testified that EMTs were called and found Randolph’s blood sugar to be extremely low – supporting the defense version of events that Randolph is subject to these diabetic attacks.

McCulloch said Randolph’s doctor now has changed the type of insulin he uses. And Randolph frequently checks his blood sugar levels to avoid a recurrence, McCulloch said. And McCulloch said, from time to time, Randolph uses a driver.

McCulloch said if the case had ever gotten to a jury, it almost certainly would have taken the jurors only seconds to return a verdict for Randolph.

“I believe the jury in disgust would have gone to the jury room, walked around the table and said to themselves, ‘Why are we here?’ and walked out and said ‘Not guilty.’”

McCulloch also told reporters he was “frankly disgusted” that it took the city attorney’s office until the morning of the trial to drop the charges, since he and his colleague, attorney Kathy Schillaci, had spent hundreds of hours on the case and the medical facts of Randolph’s situation were well known months ago.

Under S.C. law, if a person is suffers from a medical condition that disturbs their ability to reason, they cannot be charged with a crime because they cannot form the intent to commit that crime.

For McCulloch, representing Randolph had a personal side. Their friendship goes back almost 50 years. In the late 1960s, Randolph was one of the first blacks to integrate then all-white Dreher High School. McCulloch, who is white, was a student there, and the two were on the track team – Randolph being a quarter-miler, and McCulloch, a hurdler.

Randolph faced a maximum of 90 days in jail – 30 days on each charge.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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