On December 9, 2012, The Post and Courier reported the acquittal of Tyrone Winslow Jr., on a murder charge. Mr. Winslow had sat in jail for two years while waiting for a trial that “by all accounts, never should have happened.” Mr. Winslow finally received justice when Circuit Court Judge Stephanie McDonald directed a verdict of not guilty after finding that the state had failed to prove its case.
The article reported that Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlet Wilson placed responsibility for such a needless prosecution coming to trial on the defense. “Had we known the information presented in court, we would have made the same decision that the judge made, only much sooner,” Wilson said.
These remarks are troubling. First, they ignore the fact that the standard for granting a directed verdict is a determination by the court as to the mere existence of evidence to prove the charges, not any kind of ruling on how strong or weak that evidence may be. In other words, the court must find that, even when the evidence is viewed in a light most favorable to the state, there is not enough evidence creating an issue to be submitted to a jury. The fact that the evidence in this matter failed to clear that hurdle is on no one other than the state.
Secondly, the solicitor’s comments imply that the state was unaware before trial that the defense in this case would center on the fact that Mr. Winslow was attacked. That is not true. The two main witnesses for the defense gave statements to police at the time of the incident establishing that Mr. Winslow was attacked by multiple people.
The failure of the state to adequately investigate and seek out the truth of what happened is no one’s fault but its own. The prosecution’s job is to see justice is done, and that means a complete and thorough investigation should be made before bringing a case to trial. The failure to adequately investigate this matter is a mistake by the state and no one else.
However, the most troubling aspect of the resolution of this case is the need of the Solicitor’s office to point fingers at the defense. Anyone who has seen My Cousin Vinny and the dramatic revelation that ’64 Buick Skylarks did not have “positraction” is aware that the state can simply hit the brakes during trial and “dismiss all the charges.”
As soon as the allegedly unknown evidence came out at trial, the state could have informed the court that it wished to do justice and dismiss the charges against Mr. Winslow. More simply, the state could have informed the court that it was not opposing the defense’s motion for directed verdict once it was made.
The solicitor’s office chose to ignore both of those options. Instead of seeking justice, they pressed on, arguing against the motion for directed verdict and passing the buck on to Judge McDonald. In the aftermath of the court directing a verdict of not guilty, it is disingenuous for the solicitor’s office to claim it would have done things differently if the defense had not been “hiding the ball.” The solicitor’s office had plenty of opportunity to make things right after all the cards were on the table, and they chose to pursue a conviction rather than seek the very justice they now claim to agree with.
Beattie Butler and the Ninth Circuit Public Defender’s Office did a wonderful job representing Mr. Winslow and ensuring justice was done. They deserve praise, not blame. It is incumbent on elected officials who bear the responsibilities of public office to offer solutions, not excuses.
Here is to hoping the Ninth Circuit solicitor’s office will move on to offering solutions instead of making excuses, so that no other person falls victim to the injustice Mr. Winslow had to endure.
Patrick J. McClaughlin, an attorney in Florence, is president of the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.