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Charleston Thug Life probe: 'Witch hunt' or attempt to preserve justice system?

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The leak of a juvenile murder suspect's name in 2015 sparked a state investigation into North Charleston police officials suspected of feeding intelligence to the Charleston Thug Life blog.

Some authorities, including the suspect's public defender, said sources of confidential information within law enforcement can undermine the justice system and jeopardize criminal investigations.

But others, including a victim advocate fired for revealing other police records, said the probe has morphed into a fishing expedition for people who used the blog's cloak of anonymity to share information that fed criticism of public officials.

"This is a witch hunt," said Jessica Rodriguez, the advocate who was questioned about the name's release. "It's an abuse of power to look through everyone who had contact with Charleston Thug Life and go after them."

Rodriguez was one of at least two employees disciplined over communications with the blog that exposed Lowcountry criminal behavior and often condemned the handling of prosecutions. Most recently, Patrolman David Winslette was demoted to a civilian position after sending the blog a video that highlighted stereotypes of black people.

The nearly two-year investigation is not over. No criminal charges have come from it. Representatives of the agencies involved, the State Law Enforcement Division and the S.C. Attorney General's Office, declined to comment.

North Charleston police spokesman Spencer Pryor also declined to discuss the issue. The police released details of the probe under The Post and Courier's Freedom of Information Act request for personnel records.

The Thug Life website went dark early in the probe as state agents started asking questions. Last year, they confiscated computer equipment belonging to the lead developer, who has not been publicly named. A redacted search warrant, provided by an attorney involved with the case, referred to the man as "Chief."

Considering the length of the investigation, 9th Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington said he is worried that there may be people still on the job at the North Charleston Police Department who shared privileged information or racially charged material on the website.

“If our legal system is not credible, it compromises the integrity of our democracy,” he said. “This is not something we can ignore.”

But Charleston attorney Andy Savage, who has been examining the investigation at Rodriguez's request, has questioned its scope.

He said state agents "rummaged through" a hard drive "for information that was not criminal in nature." Their search, he said, scooped up a range of communications with the blog, not just information related to the juvenile.

The blog sometimes targeted Savage, but he said he accepted such scrutiny "because that's part of being a public person."

"When they're pointing out errors in the criminal justice system ... there's nothing wrong with that," he said. "Police officers are out on the street, seeing things others don't. I think those people ought to be glorified."

'Right to confidentiality'

Concerns were raised after Thug Life identified the 15-year-old suspect three days after his arrest on May 13, 2015. The post was titled "Family Fun," according to the search warrant; his father had been slain in North Charleston earlier that year.

The juvenile, who turned 16 the day after his arrest, was one of several murder suspects jailed in the death of 36-year-old Kedena Brown. The unsuspecting mother of three was gunned down on Mother's Day after someone mistook her car for an adversary's.

Tammie Coppinger, a Charleston County public defender, represented the teen. For some time, Coppinger said, she and her colleagues had been concerned about juvenile names appearing on Thug Life.

But she was stunned to see her client’s name and details of his juvenile record show up within hours of his arrest. To Coppinger, that meant a government employee had likely leaked the information.

“That is against the law," she said. "Juveniles have a right to confidentiality, and they shouldn't have been disseminating this information. My concern was: Where is this information coming from?”

Through a subpoena, Coppinger got internet records that led her to a name associated with Thug Life. The name, which she wouldn't disclose, heightened her suspicions about public employees being involved.

She turned over the information to 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, the county's chief prosecutor and a favorite target of Thug Life barbs. That information provided the seeds of the SLED investigation.

Given the potential scope of the problem, Wilson said she decided to turn the case over to state authorities. In a June 23, 2015 letter, she relayed concerns about a breach of confidentiality and asked the state's attorney general to assign a different prosecutor to handle the case. She also suggested that the activity may be misconduct in office, a misdemeanor.

"It appeared the problem might be widespread and involve multiple officers," she said. "Not knowing where the investigation might lead, I believed it best to turn it over to the AG and SLED since they are better equipped for broader inquiry. I also did not know who might ultimately be involved and felt the potential for conflicts would be reduced if they handled it."

'All the truth'

The juvenile, Kenneth Lamont Robinson Jr., eventually was charged as an adult, making his name public.

Rodriguez, the victim advocate hired in January 2014, spoke with SLED agents last year and first told them that she could not remember releasing such information because the shooting had happened more than a year earlier.

The investigators, though, revealed Facebook messages she sent to Thug Life, along with a "major activity report" on a crime, according to documents in her personnel file.

Rodriguez said she was never trained about policies on juvenile confidentiality or procedures on releasing documents she thought were public anyway.

New advocates typically attend a two-hour course on "ethics and confidentiality," police records stated, but it was unclear whether Rodriguez had taken it.

Internal investigators eventually got involved at Chief Eddie Driggers' command.

In a statement to them, Rodriguez said she had spoken "on numerous occasions" with Thug Life. But she thought she had a First Amendment right to privately contact the blog about a matter of public interest.

The Thug Life blogger "is very well aware of everyone in this department," Rodriguez told the investigators during a recorded interview. "So it was easy to talk to someone that … knows these people."

Rodriguez had been scolded earlier in her career for making disparaging comments about crime victims, an approach that the website was often criticized for. In a Facebook comment about a 2014 homicide in North Charleston, she wrote, "Let them keep killing each other as long as they don't kill any innocent bystanders."

The internal probe into the Thug Life link faulted her in the report's release for violating confidentiality policies, disseminating information without permission and being dishonest to SLED agents. She was fired in August.

Now, she is troubled that the SLED probe has cast a wide net over the department, which already is struggling with low morale after the shooting death of Walter Scott.

In paperwork related to the internal case, a police captain said SLED was "looking for ... leaks of sensitive information" and had "interviewed dozens of North Charleston employees."

Rodriguez said she is unlikely to ever again serve as a victim advocate. She got a job in a different line of work. Her firing disrupted her career, she said, and her family's plans to build a new house.

"If I could go back and change talking to Charleston Thug Life, I wouldn't," she said. "It's all the truth."

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556 or follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the Quick Response Team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.

Watchdog/Public Service Editor

Glenn Smith is editor of the Watchdog and Public Service team and helped write the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, “Till Death Do Us Part.” Reach him securely on Signal at 843-607-0809 or by email at

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