In a case that raised questions about South Carolina’s lack of sentencing guidelines, a judge in Charleston declined Thursday to change his decision cutting in half the jail term of a drunk driver who killed an elderly woman.
The case of Samuel McCauley, and the decisions made by Circuit Judge Thomas L. Hughston Jr., also raised questions about the state’s Victims’ Bill of Rights, and whether it gives victims a right to a hearing when a sentence reduction is considered.
McCauley, who was 19 at the time, got drunk, sped the wrong way up an Interstate 26 ramp and struck 72-year-old Eleanor Caperton’s car head-on in July 2011. She died from her injuries, and he was so drunk that he didn’t know how he came to be in a hospital.
McCauley pleaded guilty to charges of reckless homicide and felony DUI involving death, and he was originally sentenced by Hughston to spend 10 years in jail. In May, Hughston cut McCauley’s jail time to five years, without holding a hearing, after being asked to reconsider by McCauley’s lawyer.
The 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office had argued against any sentence reduction.
At issue Thursday was the way in which Hughston handled the re-sentencing. Issuing a post-trial ruling without holding a hearing is allowed, but the victim’s family and the Solicitor’s Office were upset, particularly because they weren’t aware the sentence had been reduced until July.
The latest hearing was held after Solicitor Scarlett Wilson filed a motion seeking to reopen the sentencing, in which she said the court’s approach “threatens the integrity of our criminal justice system.”
The result was that the victim’s family got another chance to tell the judge about their pain and call for a tougher sentence — but the sentence was not changed.
“Today was just a show, to satisfy the Victims’ Bill of Rights,” said Phyllis Savenkoff, Caperton’s sister.
“He’s not going to change anything,” Savenkoff said after the hearing.
Hughston issued his ruling about an hour later, confirming Savenkoff’s suspicions.
In court, Wilson did not repeat the statements in her motion about Hughston’s actions threatening the justice system.
“I don’t intend to criticize the court,” the solicitor told Hughston. “I’m here to protect the process.”
Wilson said that under the state’s Victims’ Bill of Rights, the victim’s family should have had a chance to attend and speak when McCauley’s sentence was reconsidered. McCauley’s lawyer, Capers Barr, disagreed.
Barr said the rules of criminal procedure allow for post-trial rulings to be made without holding a hearing, and that while the Victims’ Bill of Rights guarantees victims the right to attend hearings, it doesn’t require that there be a hearing.
“We still contend the court made no error in the manner in which the court ruled,” Barr said.
Hughston made the same point, but said he wanted to address the issue.
“I think that I was within the law by not having a hearing, but I don’t want there to be any question about anyone being denied a right to be heard, under the Constitution of this state,” Hughston said in court.
Former S.C. Attorney General Charlie Condon, now a lawyer in private practice in Mount Pleasant, led the 2005 effort to add the Victims’ Bill of Rights to the state Constitution. He said Thursday that he doesn’t think the Victims’ Bill of Rights was circumvented when Hughston reduced McCauley’s sentence without a hearing, but he thinks hearings probably should be held when sentences are reconsidered.
“In light of this, I think the better practice would be to have a hearing, and I think the legislation should be changed to say that if there is a sentence reduction, the victims should be allowed to speak,” Condon said.
“What struck me about (the McCauley case) was, I think Judge Hughston should be commended for having the hearing, because it’s really a gray area,” he said.
In his ruling Thursday, Hughston also said the case illustrates the need for sentencing guidelines in South Carolina.
“The legal range in this case is one to 35 years,” he wrote. “That’s too much discretion.”
Hughston said the lack of sentencing guidelines results in unfair or unequal treatment for crime victims and defendants.
McCauley’s family members live in Iowa and did not attend the hearing,
Caperton’s niece, Gina Buchardt, said her aunt had been planning to take a cruise in 2011, before she was killed in the wreck caused by McCauley. Buchardt said that next week, Caperton’s family members will go on a cruise and scatter Caperton’s ashes.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.