Nettles taps experience


Mary Ann Chastain

COLUMBIA -- A week into his new job as South Carolina's top federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles says he hopes his background in criminal defense will lend a well-rounded perspective to his time in the office.

"Justice is the resolution of conflict, and conflict arises because there is a difference of opinion," Nettles said Monday. "And I believe that the resolution of that conflict is best served by presenting as many perspectives as possible."

Nettles, 48, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate last month and sworn in May 3, comes to the prosecutor's job after more than 20 years in practice, most of that as a criminal defense attorney. He takes over for Kevin McDonald, who had been serving on an interim basis since Walt Wilkins stepped down in January.

The graduate of The Citadel and the Widener University School of Law in Pennsylvania served for several years as a public defender in Richland County before entering private practice. In 2005, Nettles formed Sanders & Nettles LLC in Charleston with his father-in-law, former state lawmaker and judge Alex Sanders, who also served as president of the College of Charleston and helped found the Charleston School of Law.

Nettles, who has never served as a prosecutor, has made headlines for some of his recent cases. Last year, he was hired to represent Michael Phelps after a photo of the 14-time Olympic gold medalist surfaced, showing him inhaling from a pipe commonly used to smoke marijuana at a 2008 party with University of South Carolina students. Phelps said he used "bad judgment," and authorities raided homes where people who partied with Phelps were staying. In the end, no charges were filed against the athlete.

Nettles also has worked many capital cases, including that of a New Hampshire native accused of mowing down two officers over a land dispute between his family and the state Transportation Department. Steven Bixby is serving a death sentence for those slayings. Another client, Terrion Warren, was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to killing a Richland County jail officer during a failed escape attempt.

On whether he'll be pursuing the federal death penalty against alleged criminals whom he may have defended in the past, Nettles said he'll do as he's directed by the Department of Justice, which determines when the federal death penalty statute will be applied.

"I will follow the law as it's dictated by Washington," he said.