An awkward moment surfaced inside the Berkeley County Courthouse last August when Blair Jennings and Scarlett Wilson were about to put three defendants in a murder case on trial.
Both prosecutors were tucked in their seats, waiting for the case to start. But neither was talking to each other.
Instead, the pair made small talk with others in the courtroom, gingerly stepping around their dueling political ambitions to become the next elected solicitor for Charleston and Berkeley counties. Only after the trial started did they seem to put their differences aside.
In the hottest local race of the year, Wilson, a career prosecutor and Gov. Mark Sanford appointee, faces a GOP primary challenge in the 9th Circuit from Jennings, who she forced out of the Berkeley office after ruling he wasn't on board with her new administration. With no Democrat in the race, the next nine weeks will determine Berkeley's and Charleston's top prosecutor for the next four years. Political watchers say the race will play out all over town, from the lawyers of Broad Street to the ranks of the local GOP.
"It has all the makings of getting ugly, not only in terms of partisanship but also among friends and who is in tight with which faction of the legal community," said College of Charleston political scientist Jeri Cabot in analyzing the race.
Wilson, 40, traveled a round-about path to get to Charleston. Raised in Hemingway in Williamsburg County, she went to Clemson University and graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1992. In 1995 she was hired as a federal prosecutor in Columbia at the relatively young age of 26 and would become part of the U.S. Attorney's Office Violent Crimes Task Force. Along the way, she earned recognition for her work on all sorts of federal-level crimes, including drug probes, murder, murder-for-hire and armed robbery. She joined the solicitor's office in 2000 when former Solicitor Ralph Hoisington made her his second in command.
Those who have faced Wilson in court describe her as a dedicated victims' advocate. "It was clear to me that she truly believed in what she was doing," said defense attorney Tim Kulp, who faced Wilson when she successfully prosecuted Jarod Wayne Tapp for murdering College of Charleston honors graduate Julie Jett in her West Ashley apartment in May 2003.
In one of her more personal cases, Wilson returned to her Williamsburg County roots in 1998 when she helped convict long-time Sheriff Theodore 'Big Mac' McFarlin of one count of participating in a crack and cocaine conspiracy, and two counts of perjury. McFarlin was the same sheriff who'd been in office in Williamsburg County since Wilson was a girl.
Jennings, 37, grew up in Charleston, attended Emory University and graduated from USC's law school in 1996. In 2000, Hoisington picked him as deputy solicitor in Berkeley County to run prosecutions in Moncks Corner, giving him oversight of an office that's not as large as Charleston's but sees cases just as problematic. Local attorneys describe Jennings as even-handed in a courtroom. "Blair was always fair with my clients and he's an excellent trial lawyer," said former Berkeley County public defender J. Mitchell Lanier.
One high-profile case from Jennings' career is the conviction of Jessie Sapp for the murder of South Carolina Highway Patrolman Jeff Johnson during a 2002 traffic stop. Sapp is now on Death Row. Another is the 2004 conviction of Derrick Grant for the 2002 Christmastime murder of former Atlanta Bread Co. employee Rachel Sottile.
Both Wilson and Jennings worked beside Hoisington until he passed away last June from pancreatic cancer. When Sanford chose Wilson as the successor, she became the first woman to hold the job. But it also sparked the current political rift. During a political forum last month at the Charleston School of Law, Wilson was asked to explain why she forced Jennings out of his Berkeley County post. Her answer: cohesion, commitment and competence, saying it was clear Jennings was not fully in her camp.
Jennings told the 35 students in the audience the issue was something else. "It was a political decision," he said.
The ouster came weeks after Jennings had picked up a major political boost from Hoisington's widow, Michele, who hosted a kickoff campaign fundraiser for him at her home.
The Ninth Circuit covers a two-county geographic area that's home to 510,000 people. In all, there's an estimated 115 employees in the Charleston and Berkeley county offices, including investigators, assistant solicitors and support staff to handle thousands of criminal cases a year. Since taking over, Wilson has launched several initiatives including creating a special criminal domestic violence court that local magistrates initially opposed, and pushing for bond revocations for repeat violent offenders. The current trend prosecutors must combat is the growth of multi-suspect crimes where more than one offender is involved, she said.
"There are not as many 'lone rangers' out there committing a crime," she said. She also stepped up the number of murder trials. At least seven have been called in Charleston County this year, as opposed to nine for all of last year.
Jennings said his work running the Berkeley office has already prepared him to run prosecutions for both counties. In Berkeley County, he assigned lawyers to cases, worked prosecution strategies, set budgets, dealt with County Council and installed a case docketing program.
The emerging trend that law enforcement must prepare for, he said, is that geographic boundaries between towns, cities and communities are becoming less meaningful. "There are no (jurisdiction) lines in the criminals' perception," he said.
Both candidates are relying on some big names to attract rank-and-file voters. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey is backing Jennings, saying he would be progressive in getting criminals from his city "tried and convicted as soon as possible." But others who have worked at the ranking levels of prosecutions or as victim advocates are siding with Wilson, including Anne Lee, president and CEO of the sexual abuse awareness group Darkness to Light. "I think it's way beyond time someone in the solicitor's position take seriously special-victims' needs, specifically domestic violence and child abuse," she said.
Also in Wilson's camp is former Charleston solicitor and state attorney general Charlie Condon. "She's a very good trial attorney," he said. She's a complete package."
On the politically influential side, former Charleston County GOP Chairman Cyndi Mosteller is backing Jennings, saying he has a longer track record in Republican politics than Wilson does, and also because Hoisington put him solo in charge of running an entire county's prosecutions. "I know Ralph Hoisington had a lot of confidence in Blair," Mosteller said.
Beyond their debates, forums and other appearances, the solicitor's battle seems destined to be fought on TV, and Jennings goes into the airwaves fight with a built-in advantage. Shortly after losing his job as deputy solicitor, he was specially hired by Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt — who this week confirmed he's endorsed Jennings — as both the legal counsel for the sheriff's office and as a press spokesman. The department already had a designated public information officer, former radio personality Dan Moon. But the move gave Jennings widespread exposure on nightly news reports, including this week at a methamphetamine lab bust. He's on a $5,000 monthly retainer working for the department and earns another $35,000 a year as a part-time prosecutor for 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe in Dorchester County. In mid-May, Jennings will become a full-time assistant solicitor in Dorchester County, picking up the caseload of former deputy solicitor Don Sorensen, who resigned after being caught up in the recent Hanahan poker raid. But Wilson has the power of incumbency.
Left open as a potential wild card in the race is local voters' views of Wilson's prosecution of 10 Wando High School teens for their role in a high-profile case of armed robbery. Late last year, Wilson offered plea deals of 10 years in prison for the two leaders in a fall 2006 crime spree that included the armed robbery of a Mount Pleasant Food Lion. The two main players, Michael Anthony, 19, and Sean Shevlino, 17, pleaded guilty and were sent to the state Department of Corrections. It was in line with the same deal Hoisington crafted before he died.
The sentencings divided the community, with police saying Wilson applied the law neutrally, while some parents believed she went to the extreme, pursuing excessive adult jail time for teenagers. Some residents even pledged to use the sentencings to rally opposition against her.
Eight other students, who mostly acted as lookouts in the Food Lion case, are still waiting to be sentenced but won't have to face a judge until mid-July, well after the June 10 GOP primary vote.