COLUMBIA — It took only 15 minutes for a Democratic state lawmaker to be cleared of assault charges Tuesday in a year-long case stemming from a confrontation with a female colleague in the Statehouse over school district consolidation.
A six-member jury of five men and one woman found Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, not guilty after more than two days of testimony in Richland County magistrate court.
Govan, a 25-year veteran of the Legislature, had been accused of attacking Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter, D-Orangeburg, in May 2017 in the state capitol building.
At that time, the two lawmakers were at odds over a school consolidation plan in Orangeburg County. When they encountered each other in a small hallway in the Statehouse, a scuffle broke out.
During the altercation, Cobb Hunter and two assistant solicitors in Richland County alleged Govan grabbed her arm and twisted her wrist.
Govan and his attorneys successfully argued that he was only defending himself after Cobb Hunter pushed several sheets of paper and her cell phone into his face.
"It was a defensive reaction to something being shoved in my face," Govan said Tuesday after taking the witness stand. "I believe I acted in the normal way any person would."
The jury agreed with Govan after less than 15 minutes of deliberation.
"The truth has finally come out. Now is the time to move forward," Govan said after the unanimous verdict was handed down. This was the first step needed to clear his "good name and honor," he added.
The outcome of the case didn't change Cobb Hunter's memory of the incident.
"While I'm disappointed, I know what happened and Rep. Govan knows what happened," she said after the trial. "My goal was accomplished. I had my day in court."
Over the past two days, the assistant solicitors paraded more than half a dozen witnesses into the courtroom to testify about what they heard and saw during the scuffle. But the case largely came down to one key witness: Rep. Greg Duckworth, R-North Myrtle Beach.
Duckworth was the only witness to actually see what happened during the altercation. He testified that he saw Cobb Hunter shove the papers she was carrying into Govan's face. Govan responded by smacking her hand away, he said.
Throughout the trial, Govan's defense team also tried to convince the jury that the assault charges were politically motivated. They raised the issue of one of the assistant solicitors in the case, April Sampson, running for a judgeship — a position chosen by state lawmakers.
They also questioned Cobb Hunter about how the Richland County Sheriff's Office became involved in the case.
She testified Richland Sheriff Leon Lott saw her at an event and asked if she was ever able to file a complaint over the alleged assault.
By that point, Cobb Hunter had tried to file a complaint with several other law enforcement agencies, including with the security officers in the Statehouse.
The situation, she said, required her to hire a personal attorney. The case, Cobb Hunter added, should serve as a lesson for victims of violence.
"Be persistent," she said.
Both lawmakers say they can set aside the incident and go back to their jobs as legislators.
They'll have no choice. The Legislature returns to Columbia on Wednesday for a special session.