The state Supreme Court will decide whether Lexington County authorities had the duty to protect a woman from attack by her ex-boyfriend, a criminal domestic violence offender, while she was in a county courtroom.
Teresa Edwards, of Lexington County, alleged in a 2005 negligence lawsuit that the county should have known to protect her from Allen Luther Baker, who had threatened Edwards with violence and death.
"This is a unique case," said Columbia attorney John O'Leary, who represents Edwards. "If you can't be protected in the courtroom in a criminal domestic violence case, then you have a serious breakdown in security."
But lawyers for the Lexington County Sheriff's Office and county government told the justices "public duty" laws apply to the public in general, and do not extend to special protection for specific individuals.
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"If we are being asked to have a broad-based rule, that anytime the court issues (a request to appear), that would surely be an onerous thing," said Patrick J. Frawley, who represents the county in the case.
In 2003, while Oak Grove Magistrate Jamie Lucas wrote an order after a 20-minute hearing, revoking Baker's bond on criminal domestic violence charges for allegedly assaulting Edwards, Baker suddenly lunged into action in the open court, according to court documents.
Baker first attacked assistant solicitor Nicole Howland, who prosecutes criminal domestic violence cases for the county, striking Howland at least twice.
Edwards was seated at the same table as Howland. Baker pinned Edwards in her chair against a wall and struck her on the right side of the face and head at least three times.
Baker, who authorities said had violated terms of his bond twice and had been let out of jail, showed up at Lucas' courtroom with only his bondsman.
Court documents showed there were no armed officers in Lucas' courtroom that August day. Nor was there camera surveillance, electronic monitoring or searches at the entrances, restraints on Baker or a holding cell to put Baker in after the judge revoked his bail.
O'Leary said Edwards told court officials she did not want to be at Baker's bond revocation hearing because she was afraid of him.
The two had an on-again, off-again relationship, with Baker sometimes living with Edwards. But Baker, according to court documents, also once conned Edwards' young daughter into letting him into their home, and he also once kicked in the door to gain access.
Court officials urged Edwards to come to the hearing to present taped evidence of Baker's violating his bond conditions, which included no contact with Edwards.
Edwards, who was hospitalized after the incident and released, suffers permanent hearing loss in her right ear, O'Leary said.
The justices asked attorneys for Lexington whether the violent history between Edwards and Baker did not constitute a special need for protection.
Chief Justice Jean Toal said "Teresa Edwards' tapes" have been shown all around the state, as a training tool. "There have certainly been some changes at the local court levels," Toal said.
When Baker attacked in the courtroom, court records show, Lucas, the magistrate, who also is a former police officer, leapt over the judge's desk with a can of pepper spray, bathing Baker with the substance.
Baker's bondsman, David Crawford, and Lucas subdued Baker until police arrived, about 10 minutes later.
The case, which was temporarily settled in a summary court decision issued by Circuit Judge James Johnson in 2007, could have far-reaching effects in South Carolina.
"We think Ms. Edwards' case deserves to be heard in front of a jury," O'Leary said. "I think you've got to say to the counties, 'You have got to have some security in courtrooms.'"
A month after Johnson's ruling, Edwards filed an appeal.
The Supreme Court, however, stepped in, short-circuiting an Appeals Court hearing, because of the gravity of the issues involved in the case, Toal said.
If the court overturns Johnson's summary ruling, the case would go to trial.