Crime & Courts

In tarnished SC prosecutor’s office, Weiss is ‘caretaker’ who is pushing change too

Heather Weiss talks about replacing Dan Johnson

Due to Dan Johnson's suspension from office on public corruption charges, Heather Weiss is his replacement for three months until a newly-elected solicitor can be installed.
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Due to Dan Johnson's suspension from office on public corruption charges, Heather Weiss is his replacement for three months until a newly-elected solicitor can be installed.

Take a healthy dose of caretaking. Add some changes. Shake them up.

That is the recipe for managing her new post for Heather Weiss, the temporary 5th Circuit solicitor now overseeing nearly all criminal prosecutions in Richland and Kershaw counties.

“Am I trying to do things?” Weiss said, “The answer is yes.”

But Weiss also said she has a vital role in running the office — with its 140-person person staff and $8 million-a-year budget — in a steady fashion.

“Being appointed or elected to any office, it’s your job to be the caretaker of the office, steward to the people,” said Weiss, 43.

After 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson was indicted on federal and state charges of misconduct and embezzlement last month, Gov. Henry McMaster suspended Johnson from office and, then, appointed Weiss as interim solicitor on the recommendation of S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson. Johnson is fighting the charges.

Weiss, a supervising prosecutor in the attorney general’s office, isn’t new to the 5th Circuit prosecutor’s office. From 1999 to 2010, she was an assistant prosecutor in the office.

She will be interim solicitor until early January, when either Byron Gipson or John Meadors — the two Columbia lawyers vying in the Nov. 6 election to replace Johnson — take office.

Until then, Weiss is in charge of an office that has been reeling for months.

It has:

Seen senior prosecutors quit. The solicitor’s office is down to about 26 prosecutors from its usual 35.

Been plagued by allegations of sexual harassment of female prosecutors by Johnson, who denies the charges.

Seen delays in prosecuting cases.

Suffered embarrassing trial losses in the courtroom. Since January, the 5th Circuit solicitor has lost at least six jury trials, including two where the defendant represented himself. So many losses are unusual since prosecutors choose the cases to bring to trial, and have considerable police and investigative resources available to apply to cases.

Under Johnson, the solicitor’s office had a reputation for not communicating with judges or defense lawyers to set trial schedules.

No more.

“It’s been really refreshing to have a solicitor who is here and ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work in a collaborative fashion. Both sides can accomplish far more when they work together,” said Fielding Pringle, the circuit’s chief public defender who consults regularly with Weiss on scheduling.

Weiss also has:

Met with Gipson and Meadors, the candidates for the solicitor’s post, briefing them on what she is doing. “I didn’t want to do anything they would recoil from,” said Weiss, who is not backing either candidate in the Nov. 6 election.

Hired retired Circuit Court Judge Knox McMahon, a former assistant 5th Circuit prosecutor, and former 5th Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese, who retired to private practice in 2010, to help with cases on a 20-hour-a-week basis. McMahon and Giese know how to evaluate cases, negotiate with defense attorneys and will be mentors to younger prosecutors, Weiss said.

Taken steps to speed up resolving cases.

“This is a huge honor for me,” Weiss said. “I’m trying to do as much as I can before the next solicitor comes in.”

After taking office, Weiss asked all assistant prosecutors to have two cases ready for trial within two weeks. “That’s how we used to do things — you had to have two trials on every trial docket, and the trial docket seemed very small to me when I walked in.”

The result?

“We came up with 51 cases ready for trial, and that let me know I had an office of people ready to work,” Weiss said.

Often, the only way a case gets resolved is by having prosecutors ready to go to trial — subpoenas sent out and witnesses ready to testify, Weiss said At that point, many defendants will agree to a plea bargain. Of the 51 cases that prosecutors readied, only about a half-dozen actually will result in a jury trial, Weiss predicted.

The solicitor’s office also won a high-profile trial last week.

James Kester, a man who rammed his car into mourners at a 2017 Columbia funeral, was found guilty of multiple counts of assault and battery. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

Unlike Johnson, who rarely attended any trials, Weiss sat in the courtroom watching portions of the Kester trial. “Justice was done,” she said.

But problems persist with winning trials.

After a six-day trial, a Richland County jury took less than three hours Monday to find a defendant not guilty of criminal sexual conduct. “It was a harrowing experience. My client always insisted he was innocent,” said attorney Jamie Shadd.