Senators on a panel that oversees the state’s prisons hoped to learn more Thursday about the killings of four inmates, but they were thwarted by a letter instructing them to not discuss “any issues” related to the homicides.
An April 14 letter addressed to the panel, signed by 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson and State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, implored the committee to “refrain from forcing anyone ... to discuss any issues involving this matter at your upcoming committee hearing or at any time prior to these cases being finally resolved in a court of law.
“This is an active, ongoing, complex investigation into four brutal murders,” Johnson and Keel wrote last Friday. “We submit that any risk of imperiling justice or the sanctity of the judicial process is simply too great, and we beseech this committee to refrain from forcing any discussion regarding this matter.”
The murders referenced in the letter involved the killings of Jimmy Ham, 56, Jason Kelley, 35, John King, 52, and William Scruggs, 44, in a dorm where the mentally ill are treated at Kirkland Correctional Institution near the Harbison area. Jacob Theophilus Philip, 25, and Denver Jordan Simmons, 35, have been charged each with four counts of murder.
Several senators expressed frustration with the letter given that it was the first time corrections director Bryan Stirling addressed the incident publicly.
Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, noted Johnson’s absence during the hearing and requested Stirling “make sure” both Johnson and Keel attend a proposed future closed-door session.
Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, said he did not think it was “appropriate for anybody to be chilling the powers” of the committee in exploring what is happening at the agency that led to the killings. If the corrections agency has prisons where staffing levels are at “crisis levels,” then the panel has a duty to act, Allen said.
“We have the four at Kirkland that are fatalities and we have the threat of loss of life in Kershaw,” he said. “We don’t need anything more in South Carolina to wake up and say this is a problem.”