The court docket for South Carolina’s 8th Circuit has continued to grow as COVID-19 forced trials to be halted across the region.
That just can’t happen again, said 8th Circuit Solicitor David Stumbo.
“We just can’t afford another shutdown, Delta variant or not,” Stumbo said. “I think we’ve learned how to handle the pandemic better – some of it by trial and error – but we’re handling it better. We’re so far behind. We can’t afford a shutdown.”
He said another shutdown would effectively “cut the legs out from under the criminal justice system.”
While circuit courts across the state shut down in the earlier stages of the pandemic, law enforcement continued to make arrests and court dockets continued to grow.
Stumbo said when he took over as solicitor in 2013, about 9,000 criminal cases were waiting to be adjudicated. Seven years later, that number had been whittled down to 7,000 cases.
With time lost due to COVID-19, that number has grown to 12,000 over the past year, including a capital murder trial in Laurens County.
“I think it’s going to take a few more years to get back to where we were in January of 2020,” Stumbo said.
Across the state, courtrooms have put emphases on social distancing, masking and other COVID-19 precautions. Those with a higher risk of serious COVID-related illness have also been eliminated from jury pools.
“I think it’s the right decision because of what we’ve been able to do from last year as far as putting protections in place,” Stumbo said.
The number of criminal cases in need of prosecution continues to grow even as court sessions have returned, but Stumbo said his office has resisted any temptation to make plea arrangements with dangerous felons it would not otherwise entertain.
“I’ve told our guys, we still need to keep the community safe,” he said. “Our priority is people, not moving numbers on a docket.”
Stumbo said cases involving non-violent offenders can perhaps be handled with more “creative solutions” outside of time-consuming and costly trials when plea options are acceptable.
The capital murder trial of William Ryan Looper, who was arrested for the 2018 torture, molestation and murder of his girlfriend’s 2-year-old son, Brantley Smith, is scheduled to begin in Laurens at the end of January. The child’s mother, Jessica Smith, is also charged in the crime, but the death penalty is being sought only for Looper.
The trial was originally set for September, but rescheduled due to COVID-19.
Stumbo, who will be the lead prosecutor, said that trial is expected to take several weeks, but arrangements are being made to keep the docket moving at the same time.
“We’re still going to have other terms of court in the other courtroom (at Laurens’ Hillcrest Judicial Complex). A lot of our staff will be working on other cases,” he said.