Crime & Courts

After prosecutor errors ruin trial, SC solicitor starts re-training lawyers

In many criminal cases, the most dramatic part of the trial is when the prosecutor asks the victim on the witness stand to identify the accused.

But in an attempted murder case last week in Richland County, prosecutors rested their case after three days without doing that or putting any evidence at all before the jury that the defendant in the courtroom was the man accused of the crime.

Those omissions caused state Judge Robert Hood to dismiss all charges against Tyronne Goodwin. He cannot be tried again.

“The state failed to provide any evidence that Defendant, Mr. Tyronne Eugene Goodwin, was present in the courtroom,” Hood wrote in an order. Neither did prosecutors put up any witnesses who testified that Goodwin committed the crime he was charged with, Hood wrote.

Hood also wrote that prosecutors — one of whom no longer works for the solicitor’s office — failed “to provide any evidence that the incident location alleged by the victim took place in Richland County.”

Goodwin was accused of trying to kill a woman he was arguing with by running her over in his 2008 Chevrolet pickup truck after she got out. Then he drove off, according to a warrant in the case.

Identifying the defendant and specifying which county the alleged crime are fundamental to a prosecutor’s case in state court.

“There are two fundamental things the state has to prove — that the case was brought in the correct county, and that the person who has been charged is the one that is actually on trial,” said Goodwin’s attorney, George Johnson.

“Every lawyer and every judge listens for identification and jurisdiction — venue — is it in the right place?” Johnson said.

During the trial, prosecutors had correctly said the crime took place on Wilson Boulevard. However, Johnson said, “Just because you say Wilson Boulevard, that doesn’t mean it is in Richland County. There are Wilson Boulevards in other states.”

The dismissal of the case for such basic flaws shocked 5th Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson, who in January took over an office run by the previous solicitor Dan Johnson, who is now serving a stint in federal prison on charges he stole public money from office funds.

In an interview Monday with The State, Gipson accepted responsibility, said he had no dispute with Judge Hood’s order and said he is going to make sure all his prosecutors get refresher courses, including one on how to make checklists, on essential points they must make in presenting cases.

“We will have remedial for every lawyer in here — it’s just like a checkup that you get for your car,” said Gipson said.

The solicitor’s office has about 35 prosecutors in its Richland and Kershaw county offices, Gipson said.

Gipson said he also plans to bring in experienced trial lawyers to give classes to his prosecutors and make sure his prosecutors are keeping up with the latest trends in criminal law. Sessions will cover matters like basic courtroom etiquette, demeanor, hearsay rules, preparing witnesses and dealing with experts and the like, he said.

“It’s like block and tackling: No matter how good you get, you still have to go to training camp,” Gipson said. What he plans will be in addition to the normal classes lawyers are required to regularly take to keep their law license, he said.

Gipson also pointed out numerous cases his prosecutors have won in trials in recent months, including murder, burglary and criminal sexual conduct cases.

“We are getting guilty verdicts on major cases, and people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Gipson said, adding that so far this year, his office has won all eight stand your ground cases before it.

“What you are talking about, it’s an anomaly, and training will cure it,” Gipson said.

Gipson also took a hands-on approach by sitting in on the two-hour sentencing hearing in a recent high profile case involving a former student at Cardinal Newman High School. In that case, a white teen was sentenced to jail after making violent racist videos in which he fired shotgun blasts at an object he said represented a black person.

The ‘Fighting 5th’

Had the prosecutors — Jacqueline Li and Jonathan Lewis — put in the fundamental evidence in Goodwin’s case, it is likely they would have won, Gipson said. “I like to think we don’t take cases that don’t have a shot. I feel like we vet our cases very well.”

Lewis, who records said graduated from University of South Carolina School of Law in 2018, was a contract prosecutor who is no longer employed by the solicitor’s office, said Gipson, who spoke for Li.

Lewis could not be reached for comment.

Li graduated from University of South Carolina law school three years ago and is still with the solicitor’s office.

Gipson said what happened in the Goodwin case “was a learning moment for Li and everybody in our office.”

Gipson said in years past, the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office was known as the “Fighting 5th” in part because of the number of top prosecutors and lawyers it has turned out over the years. It’s alumni include current solicitors such as Charleston’s Scarlett Wilson, Orangeburg’s David Pascoe and Beaufort’s Duffie Stone. Top lawyers in private practice include Johnny Gasser, Dick Harpootlian and Barney Giese, all of Columbia, as well as federal prosecutors Jane Taylor and Stacey Haynes.

“We are working to get that back,” Gipson said. “We don’t take it lightly when something like this happens.”