While growing up as a son and the namesake of one of South Carolina’s most prominent politicians, “I was never pushed towards public office, but I was pushed towards public service,” said Strom Thurmond Jr. during a recent interview.
It was the tragic death of another family member, however, that made Thurmond decide that the pursuit of justice would be his career path.
In 1993, a drunken driver hit his older sister, Nancy Moore Thurmond, while she was walking across a street in Columbia.
Named for her mother, she never regained consciousness, and her parents made the difficult decision to take her off life support.
“My family’s contact with the criminal justice system caused me to change my college major from biology to English, and I decided to go to law school,” Strom Thurmond Jr. said.
“Experiencing firsthand being the victims of a terrible crime and (learning more about) the role of a lawyer in righting a wrong” made lasting impressions on him, Thurmond added.
Dick Harpootlian, the solicitor who prosecuted the case, “was extraordinary,” Thurmond said, “and he is a good friend of mine to this day as a result.”
Nothing could be done to bring back his sister, but there was the comfort of closure.
The case “ultimately resolved itself with a guilty plea to a reduced charge, and we fully understood and supported all the reasons for that,” Thurmond said. “Taking everything into account, justice was served.”
Since then, “I’ve learned in this business that a successful negotiation is frequently when everybody is left a little disappointed,” he concluded.
Thurmond, 48, spoke to the Aiken Standard late last year while preparing to step down as the solicitor for South Carolina’s 2nd Judicial Circuit.
Wednesday at noon is the official end of his time in that office.
Early in 2020, Thurmond announced he would not be seeking reelection. In November, voters chose Deputy Solicitor Bill Weeks to replace his boss.
“It’s very bittersweet, and yet I’m looking forward to life’s next chapter,” said Thurmond, who served for three four-year terms as solicitor. “I committed myself to do this job for as well as I could for as long as I could, but I did not seek this position believing it to be a lifetime appointment. Last January, I simply made a decision that it just felt like the right time for me to step aside and give someone else an opportunity to lead this office. Change is good for organizations because they get to blow out the cobwebs and get someone with new ideas and new energy to take the reins.”
Thurmond will go into private practice, teaming up with his longtime friend, S.C. Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken.
Their law firm will be called Young & Thurmond.
“We were next-door neighbors growing up in Foxchase,” Thurmond said. “In fact, Tom used to drive me to Aiken High School before I was old enough to drive. We also worked together for about a year in Columbia when I began my law career.”
The focus of Thurmond’s new practice will be select state and federal criminal matters. He also will handle some civil matters.
“I hope to be at a point in my career to give my undivided attention to a select group of clients,” Thurmond said.
In his personal and professional life, Thurmond has many connections at the local, state and national levels.
His father, who died in 2003 at the age of 100, was an attorney, a judge, a South Carolina state senator, the Palmetto State’s 103rd governor and one of longest serving U.S. senators.
When Thurmond was a youngster, his family went “back and forth between Washington, D.C., and South Carolina,” he said. “My dad wanted us to be in South Carolina every two years before an election, so we would all be here and then we would move back to Washington for four years. That was kind of the cycle until 1987, when we moved to Aiken permanently I was 14 years old.”
Even though Thurmond kept getting uprooted as a child instead of being allowed to put down roots, “it was an extraordinary life,” he remembered, “but it also was the only life I knew. I would go to an event at the White House with my parents and then go to soccer practice. It seemed very normal although I’m sure it wasn’t.”
At the time, “my dad was on a very big stage, and he was incredibly busy,” Thurmond said. “We would routinely be up there in his office and he would be meeting with other senators, world leaders and public figures. I’ve met every president from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush."
Thurmond saw his father less after the family’s permanent move to Aiken, but they still remained close.
“He would come home literally every weekend, and I also spent numerous summers as a young man working up in Washington in various places,” Thurmond said. “(At the very least), I talked to him on the phone every day, even when I was in college. He had a major effect on my life. He taught me the value of hard work. He taught me to treat others how I wanted to be treated. He taught me the importance of public service.”
Thurmond’s mother also played an important role.
“Her parents, Paul and Julie Moore, were from Aiken, so we had a strong connection to here,” Thurmond said. “She was a tremendous influence on me, and she also led a very accomplished life of her own. She attended Duke University and was Miss South Carolina. She competed in the Miss America pageant. She also has written books."
Thurmond’s mother, who was his father’s second wife, currently lives in Mount Pleasant.
“She is very devoted to her children and her grandchildren," Thurmond said. "Like I used to speak to my father on the phone every day, I speak to my mother every day.
After graduating from Aiken High School, Thurmond attended Davidson College in North Carolina for a while before transferring to the University of South Carolina and earning Bachelor of Arts and law degrees.
In the summer of 1994, Thurmond was an FBI intern, and three years later, he spent the summer in South Africa working at a game preserve.
Thurmond also was a law clerk for the S.C. House Judiciary Committee.
“I was given wonderful opportunities, but it was up to me to make something of them and use those opportunities to help others,” he said.
The resume for Thurmond's law career includes a couple of previous stints in private practice and he also worked under Barbara Morgan for about 2 1/2 years when she was the 2nd Judicial Circuit solicitor.
From November 2001 until January 2005, he was the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina. President George W. Bush appointed him to that position.
“It happened in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks,” Thurmond said, “so it was an important and exciting time to be serving in the (U.S.) Department of Justice, which was extremely busy with new roles and the prevention of future terrorist attacks and the prosecution of such attacks.”
Thurmond had administrative duties and also spent time in court.
“I was part of the trial team for the first federal death penalty case in the history of South Carolina and the first federal death penalty case in the United States where the victims’ bodies were never recovered,” Thurmond said. “It was a multi-state crime spree by a couple of guys who had escaped from prison, and I was gone for months traveling to different areas of the country where their crimes were committed. Those two individuals currently are on death row in Indiana.”
In 2008, Thurmond was unopposed in his election bid to replace the retiring Morgan as the solicitor for the 2nd Judicial Circuit.
“I really wanted the responsibility of protecting public safety and the town that I grew up in,” Thurmond said.
He also had no competition when he ran for two more terms.
“It was a tremendous honor and vote of confidence that this community allowed me to seek this position three times without opposition. That’s one way to look at it,” Thurmond said. “The other way to look at it, I guess, is that I simply picked a job that no one else wanted.”
While in office, Thurmond focused on reducing violent crime and he also tried to reduce the number of pending cases, which was huge and growing.
“I believed that a small number of violent offenders were committing a disproportionate amount of our violent crime and that if we could aggressively target those offenders, there would be a benefit,” he said. “That kind of data is really hard to show on a pie chart or a bar graph, but I think there were a whole host of cases in which we were able to make a particular neighborhood or a particular community safer.”
The effort to reduce pending cases had mixed results.
“When I took office, there were approximately 5,000 pending warrants,” Thurmond said. “At one point, we really attacked those numbers and had that number down below 3,000. But between the growth in our community and the (novel coronavirus) pandemic, which has caused the criminal justice system to almost grind to a halt, our numbers are higher than they’ve ever been.”
Of all of the cases Thurmond prosecuted while solicitor, there are two that stand out in his mind the most, the shooting deaths of the Aiken Department of Public Safety’s Scotty Richardson and Sandy Rogers.
“I will never forget them,” Thurmond said. “They will always be with me, with this office and with all of Aiken forever. Both cases resulted in life without parole sentences.”
The reactions in Aiken to the deaths of Rogers and Richardson also are vivid memories for Thurmond.
“I recall the processions for both of those funerals,” he said. “The entire town seemed to turn out. People of all races and from all different walks of life were sharing in a really collective sadness and outrage over such terrible events. It was an extraordinary community response, but I hope those are two events that are never repeated.”
When asked about his future in the legal profession in a different job, Thurmond was enthusiastic.
“I am always excited by life’s next challenges and opportunities,” he said. “At my core, I am an advocate for my client. For the last 12 years, my client has been the State of South Carolina. In private practice, my clients have been everything from major corporations to indigent defendants. We’ll just have to kind of see what happens, but I’m comfortable in my role as an advocate.”
Thurmond and his wife, Heather, have two sons: J. Strom Thurmond III, 16, and Field, 12.
J. Strom III was a poll worker during last November's general election. He told the Aiken Standard that it was "a really neat opportunity to learn about how the government works."