S.C. House panel hears testimony on release of violent criminals
COLUMBIA - By the time Rafael Horlbeck was arrested in the rape of an 8-year-old in 2006, he was well-known to law enforcement as one of the most dangerous people on the streets of Charleston. He had a long rap sheet full of previous charges and convictions, and prosecutors likely would have had few qualms imploring a judge to hold the then-23-year-old in jail until the rape charge could be heard in court.
But South Carolina's judicial system makes it relatively easy, officials say, for those facing even the most serious of charges to get out of jail on bail.
Magistrates must make a decision within 24 hours of the arrest, and bail is rarely denied, officials said. They also often have little information on the person before them, and prosecutors are rarely in the room to present the state's side of the case.
In June 2009, still out on bail, Horlbeck shot and killed 15-year-old Jermel Brown over a $200 drug debt.
The case was brought up again Thursday by Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, who told a House subcommittee that repeat offenders should face more scrutiny before being released on bail. The bill House members are considering would ensure that those who are arrested while out on bond for the most serious offenses are seen by a circuit court judge, not a magistrate, within 30 days to consider whether they should be released on bail.
It would also ensure that judges have all of the information about the arrested person's past convictions.
"They have clearly shown they have no respect for the system ... and they will continue to commit crimes as long as they're out in the community," Mullen told the House Judiciary subcommittee.
Another case Mullen pointed to was that of Donnetta Heyward, 27, who was shot and killed Jan. 11 during an apparent home invasion in the Red Top community. Carlton L. Solomon Jr., who has been charged with the crime by the Charleston County Sheriff's Office, was out on bail for an alleged carjacking and attempted murder from September 2012.
The bill doesn't appear to face much opposition. It passed the Senate, 42-0, last year.
Heath Taylor, a criminal defense lawyer who works with the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that law enforcement officials were overstating the problem, but that defense attorneys don't oppose more scrutiny for those out on bail for violent crimes.
"It doesn't happen every day," Taylor said of the types of crimes Mullen and others described.
Julie Webster asked legislators to act quickly. Her brother, Steven Fowler, was gunned down as he closed a Columbia Papa Johns restaurant in 2011 in an apparent robbery attempt. David Watson was later convicted of the crime. Watson had been arrested and released on bail four times in nine months, including an appearance in court the day of the shooting, The (Columbia) State newspaper reported.
"He shouldn't have been back on the streets from his previous charges and he was given a chance he did not deserve," Webster told House members. "We need rights too. I can't have my brother back, but maybe we can save somebody else's brother."
House members made few comments, but said they planned to bring the bill back up for discussion next week.
Staff reporter Glenn Smith contributed to this story.