Solicitor Scarlett Wilson calls request for investigation 'misguided' as public defender comes to her defense
A group of lawyers has called for an investigation of 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson's office in an ongoing spat between defense attorneys and prosecutors statewide over how evidence and criminal defendants are handled.
But the S.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers made the request to South Carolina's attorney general over the objection of the lawyer who had experienced most of those problems with Wilson.
What resulted Wednesday was another volley between litigators in the battle that erupted when a state Supreme Court justice warned solicitors about what he considered widespread and unfair practices. Wilson said the discussion about whether the justice's comments were appropriate has become a political fight.
"My office aims to strike hard blows, not foul ones," Wilson said in a two-page response that welcomed an investigation. "Prosecution is a tough business, and I am not going to cower in fear of offending some misguided criminal defense lawyers." Bobby Frederick of Myrtle Beach, president of the lawyers association, noted nine examples of alleged misconduct in Wilson's office during her more than six years on the job.
Concerns about the sharing of evidence between prosecutors and defenders were first raised in 2009 but were thought to be settled. Then, 9th Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington was assured that the cases would serve as teaching moments for Wilson's new office.
But new problems emerged, Frederick contended, in more recent self-defense cases in which Wilson's office pursued prosecution and in a case of alleged witness intimidation that she discussed with The Post and Courier in a news story.
Frederick laid out the allegations in an eight-page letter to Attorney General Alan Wilson. A spokesman for Wilson, Mark Powell, said the office received the document Tuesday and that it was "under review."
Scarlett Wilson said she strongly disputes the version of events laid out in Frederick's letter. She also noted that she didn't directly handle any of the cases he cited.
Pennington opposed the association's move to send the letter because, he told the newspaper Wednesday, he has always worked with the solicitor to iron out their differences. None of the most recent instances cited in the letter, he said, pertained to the disclosure of evidence - a problem that Scarlett Wilson largely resolved more than four years ago.
Attorneys often are not willing to listen to Pennington's gripes, he said. But Scarlett Wilson isn't one of them.
"We were having some problems back in the day," Pennington said. "But I have never been ignored or dismissed as making petty complaints. ... I have confidence that she will always have an open door."
Dated Friday, Frederick's request asked the attorney general to "protect the integrity of our criminal justice system by investigating" Scarlett Wilson's office. He declined to discuss it further with the newspaper.
It's part of a back-and-forth war of words between a judge, solicitors and defense attorneys.
The controversy started in September when S.C. Supreme Court Justice Donald Beatty unleashed a rant at a solicitors' conference that prosecutors had "been getting away with too much for too long." He vowed to keep an eye out for unethical conduct, such as witness tampering, selective and retaliatory prosecutions, perjury and evidence suppression.
His comments sparked a movement by 13 of the state's 16 solicitors to have Beatty barred from hearing their appeals. Led by an Oct. 29 letter that Wilson sent to the attorney general, they said Beatty's words made him prejudiced against solicitors and that he could not impartially hear their arguments.
In his letter, Frederick said the move by Wilson was troubling, considering some "questionable" practices during her tenure. She was appointed to the office in 2007 after the death of her predecessor. She was elected the next year.
Several of the instances dealt with prosecutors' failure to turn over evidence before trials. They included a witness who recanted her account of a fatal shooting. Prosecutors in other cases withheld information, such as lab tests of firearms and a therapist's diagnosis, from the defense because it was not in an "official report" required to be divulged by law, the letter stated.
In the case of the witness who changed her story, a mistrial was declared. Other times, defendants were convicted despite their attorneys' challenges.
Pennington pointed out four cases to Wilson in February 2009. But, Frederick's letter stated, Wilson told Pennington that she could use the cases "to help train her office in better practices."
The lawyers association, which knew of the issue then, thought the pattern would end.
Pennington said it did.
"This was important stuff," he said. "It wasn't one little casual incident. ... But we're required by oath to treat each other with civility. We sat down and addressed those friction points."
Mount Pleasant attorney Charlie Condon is a member of Frederick's association, but he also disagreed with the letter.
Condon spent time as a prosecutor and as the state's attorney general before switching to the defense side. His son is an assistant solicitor in Berkeley County.
"I know it's a challenge to keep up with the information and disclose it, but they give it to you," he said. "I have no reason to question the ethics of any prosecutor there."
But in Frederick's view, the alleged misconduct continued.
He mentioned Regina Carey, a North Charleston woman who fatally stabbed a roommate who attacked her in the house where she and her three children lived. A murder charge against the mother was dismissed in December, when a judge called the prosecutors' pursuit of the charge "appalling," the letter said. It was a clear case of self-defense, the judge ruled.
Wilson said she was simply following procedures laid out by the state Supreme Court in taking the self-defense claim to a court hearing to assess whether immunity should be granted.
The letter also criticized Wilson for her comments in a Post and Courier story about an ongoing problem with witness intimidation, an article published during the January murder trial of Tyrel Collins. The day before the trial began, his brother was accused of shooting at a home where a key witness' mother lived. Nobody was hurt.
The brother was arrested; Collins was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Collins' public defender, who had cited Wilson's published comments in asking for a mistrial, has filed preliminary paperwork for an appeal.
But Wilson said her comments in the article concerned only the general problem of witness intimidation, and she took care not to discuss specifics of Collins' ongoing trial in any way.
On Wednesday, Pennington said he was confident that the jury had never seen Wilson's words.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.