A North Charleston man implicated in the 2017 murder of a rival gang member was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge Tuesday due to a lack of evidence connecting him to the shooting.
Originally charged with murder, 21-year-old Branden Rashawn Prioleau pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.
In a Charleston courtroom, Circuit Judge Michael Nettles acknowledged the situation was "very difficult" for the family of 21-year-old Emory Sharod Lewis, a North Charleston resident who authorities said was shot at point-blank range by Prioleau outside a convenience store on New Year's Day 2017.
Before sentencing Prioleau to five years in prison — with credit for two years served in jail since his arrest — Nettles said he had to take the evidence into consideration.
"The reality of it is this is a good resolution for everyone given the circumstances," he said.
Ninth Circuit Assistant Solicitor Burns Wetmore described the slaying as "senseless, gang-related violence." The night of the shooting, Prioleau was among a group of several people celebrating at 1 a.m. outside Andrew's Discount Market, a Dorchester Road convenience store at the edge of the Dorchester Terrace neighborhood.
Prioleau, a resident of nearby Madden Drive, confronted Lewis and asked why Lewis was outside of his gang's "territory," Wetmore said.
One gunshot struck Lewis in the neck. Prioleau left the scene.
Lewis' killing was the first of 35 slayings in North Charleston in 2017, marking the deadliest year in history for the city.
There was no surveillance video of the shooting. Wetmore said police found two witnesses: a store employee and that person's spouse.
Prioleau's cousin, arrested for an unrelated offense, later identified Prioleau as the shooter to police. Investigators took his photographs to the two witnesses, and one of them identified Prioleau as the gunman.
Officers arrested Prioleau, then 19, several weeks later in January 2017.
Wetmore said the case was hindered by witnesses who presented "unique challenges." The only physical evidence was a bullet fragment from Lewis that was consistent with a shell casing found outside the store.
"I've discussed this case with the victim's mother several times. I believe she certainly hoped for a higher sentence, as did I," Wetmore said during Tuesday's hearing, "but again this is an honest and realistic assessment of the case."
Prioleau's attorney, Peter Shahid III, agreed the plea offer was fair. He said his client plans to move out of state after serving his sentence.
When given the opportunity to address the court, neither Lewis' loved ones nor Prioleau opted to make a statement.