January 27, 2015

Charges upgraded in Howard’s Rock vandalism case

This 2013 image shows the damaged Howard's Rock

This 2013 image shows the damaged Howard’s Rock

Prosecutors have upgraded the charges against a North Carolina man accused of vandalizing Clemson football landmark Howard’s Rock 19 months ago.

13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins announced Wednesday that the Pickens County Grand Jury had increased the estimated value of the damage caused by 20-year-old Micah Rogers of Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, in June 2013. Rogers is accused of damaging the protective casing around the rock and chipping off a piece of it. He was arrested two weeks after the school said the vandalism occurred.

At the time, Rogers was charged with one count each of Grand Larceny and Malicious Injury to Property valued between $2,000 and $10,000. On Wednesday, Wilkins said those charges had been upgraded to property valued above $10,000. Rogers now faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. No trial date has been set and Rogers is currently free on bond.

Howard’s Rock is perhaps Clemson’s most famous sports tradition. Before every home game, the team will rub the rock for good luck before running into the stadium. The tradition dates back to 1967. The damaged rock still remains on a pedestal inside the stadium, although security on its pedestal has been heightened.

Two other individuals 46-year-old Michael Rogers (Rogers’ father), also of Pisgah Forest, and 17-year-old Alden Gainey of Brevard were also charged with conspiracy and obstructing justice. Those charges are still pending, according to court records. The elder Rogers has denied any role in the crime.

Man sentenced for flying smuggling drone into state prison

Lee Correctional Institution (Courtesy: SC Department of Corrections)

Lee Correctional Institution (Courtesy: SC Department of Corrections)

A man has been sentenced to 15 years behind bars after pleading guilty to using a drone in a failed effort to smuggle contraband into a state prison last year.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman said 28-year-old Brenton Doyle has been sentenced to 10 years for trying to bring contraband into prison and five years for marijuana possession. The sentence will be served consecutively, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Givens.

The news was first reported by The Associated Press.

Doyle, a Gaston native, was charged in July after a crashed drone was discovered outside the walls of Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville three months earlier. Officers also found materials that they suspect was being smuggled into the prison such as phones, tobacco products, marijuana and synthetic drugs.

Prison officials believe it was the first known attempt to use a drone to smuggle contraband into a South Carolina prison.

Givens said Corrections officials still believe a second unknown individual was involved. This second person was recorded on convenience store surveillance footage purchasing similar items that were found at the crash site.


Deal reached in handling of mentally ill inmates to help settle 10-year lawsuit

new gavelSouth Carolina’s prison agency has agreed to set aside roughly $9.6 million to help improve the treatment of mentally ill inmates in its care, as part of the settlement for a 10-year lawsuit.

The agreement between the Department of Corrections and the nonprofit Protection & Advocacy for People With Disabilities, Inc., (P&A) comes one year after a state judge ruled the agency is failing to care for inmates with mental health issues. The Corrections Department initially signaled it would appeal the ruling, but agreed to negotiate a deal after new Corrections director Bryan Stirling took charge of the agency in January 2014.

“This is a significant step in the process of a long-term solution,” Stirling said in a statement. “We have been working together to develop a 3-year budget and staffing plan that we hope will be approved by the legislature. Implementation of this plan will be a challenge and will require a great deal of cooperation, however, this is a first step and we look forward to making our prisons safer for the public servants in corrections, inmates and the community.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in 2005, claimed mentally ill inmates were often held in filthy conditions as part of their solitary confinement. Others did not receive proper treatment for their conditions and often left prison in worse shape than when they entered, according to P&A executive director Gloria Prevost.

“Most people in prison eventually get out, she said. “And if they don’t get treatment and they come out with their mental illness worse than they went in, or they became mentally ill in prison, then we’re talking about a public safety factor.”

The settlement will require the Corrections Department to spend an additional $8 million spread over the next years on additional staff, such as psychiatrists, counselors, and therapists. Gov. Nikki Haley included the $4 million required for next fiscal year in her proposed budget released this week at Sterling’s request. $1.6 million will also be spent on upgrading facilities.

Legislators in both the House and Senate will have to approve the additional spending.

The Corrections Department also agreed to significant modifications in security policies and procedures. The agency said it’s also developing an improved training curriculum, including Crisis Intervention Training to improve staff’s ability to use conflict avoidance techniques and deescalate crisis situations. Corrections said it has developed a program for screening and evaluating inmates to more accurately identify those in need of mental health care.

Stirling said about 2,500 inmates currently in the South Carolina prison system suffer from some kind of mental illness.

Former Charleston legislator defiant after guilty plea

Former State Sen. Robert Ford insisted he was only pleading guilty because he couldn't afford to fight the charges

Former State Sen. Robert Ford insisted he was only pleading guilty because he couldn’t afford to fight the charges

Former longtime State Sen. Robert Ford was defiant that he had done nothing wrong, even after pleading guilty to four ethics-related charges Wednesday.

“I’m pleading guilty because I have no resources to go to court,” he told reporters outside the courtroom. “It’s a lot of money to go to court. At least $125,000-$135,000. I could never raise that kind of money.”

The Charleston Democrat was originally indicted in November on eight counts related to misuse of campaign funds and covering up the discrepancies on campaign disclosure forms. Prosecutors said Ford also misled a Senate staffer who began examining his bank records.

Ford agreed to plead guilty to half of those charges on Wednesday: two counts of False Reporting, one Misconduct count, and Forgery. He will be sentenced at a later date, likely in April. Ford could face up to 15 years in prison, but is expected to receive a significantly reduced sentence for his cooperation.

Less than 10 minutes after entering his plea to Judge Robert Food, Ford was defiant to reporters outside the courtroom. “The real villains in South Carolina are not those of us who have been indicted and charged, but those senators and representatives who make money off the system of taxpayers’ dollars,” he said. “(Those are) the real villains in this case, not me.”

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Mistrial declared in murder trial of former Eutawville police chief

Richard Combs booking photo (Image: Orangeburg County Sheriff's Office)

Richard Combs booking photo (Image: Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office)

A state judge has declared a mistrial early Tuesday after a jury could not reach a decision in the case of a former small town police chief who shot and killed an unarmed man nearly four years ago.

The jury had deliberated for 12 hours at the Orangeburg County Courthouse before reaching a deadlock on the fate of former Eutawville police chief Richard Combs. Judge Edward Dickson declared a mistrial after 1:00 a.m. Tuesday.

Combs is accused of shooting Bernard Bailey in the parking lot outside the town hall in May 2011. He had argued the shooting was in self-defense, saying he feared for his life because Bailey was trying to drive away while the officer was in the car door.

1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe said he plans to try Combs again. The Associated Press reports the jury had been deadlocked 9-3 on the murder charge. They also had the option to determine the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

Combs’ attorney said they were disappointed the jury could not come to a result.

The case stirred racial tensions in the small town that borders Lake Marion, as Combs is white and Bailey was black.

According to prosecutors, Bailey and Combs got into an argument over a broken taillight traffic ticket Combs had written for Bailey’s daughter. Following the confrontation, Combs got a warrant on obstruction charges against Bailey. Prosecutors said Bailey went to the police office six weeks later and Combs tried to arrest him on the obstruction charge. A witness said Bailey angrily returned to his truck and tried to drive off, but Combs followed and reached to pull the keys from the ignition. Combs told the court he was “trapped” in the steering wheel and fired at least two shots as Bailey backed up the truck.

Both the FBI and the State Law Enforcement Division initially investigated but did not issue any charges against Combs. Their findings were handed over to the First Circuit Solicitor’s Office in March 2013. The Orangeburg County grand jury handed down the misconduct indictment later that year, citing the unnecessary use of deadly force.

Combs’ attorneys sought to use the “Stand Your Ground” defense in the trial on that charge. But Judge Ed Dickson denied their motion. Under state law, a failed “Stand Your Ground” defense can be used as an admission from the accused that he shot the victim.

Bailey’s family had also reached a $400,000 wrongful death settlement against the Town of Eutawville and Combs in 2012.

Eutawville is a town of slightly more than 300 people that is located roughly 50 miles northwest of Charleston and 30 miles east of Orangeburg.

Jay Harper contributed to this report