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SC Courts Continue to Struggle with Backlog

SC Courts Continue to Struggle with Backlog

Like most court systems post-pandemic, South Carolina courts are struggling with a backlog. However, their troubles began long before COVID-19. One family has waited for almost 10 years to get closure on their son’s case, and it does not look like they will be getting it any time soon. So, what is going on with the backlog and how will it affect those waiting for their turn?

Tra’Quan Singleton

Tra’Quan Singleton was a 17-year-old boy who was celebrating almost adulthood when he was shot dead in a North Charleston house. His family was devastated by his loss, and they hoped to find answers in court soon after his tragic death.

However, court terms came and went, and trial dates were cancelled several times over. The suspect’s name disappeared from the docket until no more hearings and no more news came from the court. This backlog was increasing rapidly, and victims and defendants alike were left to wait indefinitely for closure.

SC courts began to encounter major backlogs years ago as a tug of war began over control of the court calendar and who would be responsible for calling cases for trial. Naturally, the pandemic worsened the issue but by 2022 over 180,000 cases were stuck in what was supposed to be a pipeline to trial. Not only has the issue left the Singleton family with a dead son and no answers, many people accused of crimes await their fate in jail or on parole but without any freedom.

The Origin of the Backlog

The snowball began all the way back in 2008 with the Langford case. A local Chinese restaurant was held up by robbers in 2008 and one of the accused, K.C. Lankford III, was in jail for two years before going to trial and being sentenced to 20 years in prison. He appealed his conviction on the basis that it violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial. By 2012 the case had gone all the way to the Supreme Court and trouble began.

The Court upheld Langford’s conviction but eliminated the tried-and-true South Carolina way of letting solicitors control the criminal court docket and court calendar. The docket determines which cases will be presented before a judge. Defense attorneys across the state have complained about my ears that the old system was unfair to victims and defendants alike.

Some accused the prosecutors of judge shopping which means the D.A. looks for a judge they have a relationship with and buys time so they can become a part of negotiations and release a verdict in favor of the state. In a 2009 court survey, one attorney said,

South Carolina is one of only a scant few states in this country that still uses such a backward and unconstitutional system. One party to any action should never control access to the courts.”

Since the survey, legislators and officials have taken to heart these complaints and along with the Supreme Court Decision in the Langford case, they were forced to remove the old system in favor of a new one. However, change never comes easy, especially systemic change and in the 10 years since the original case, no one in the legislature or the court system has figured out what should replace the judge shopping system.

What This Means for Defendants

The original system and the lack of any type of order since has left countless victims without justice and defendants without a chance at a fair trial. For those accused of a crime, time is of the essence and without proper scheduling, a person who cannot afford bail could potentially be stuck in police custody for years like K.C. Langford.

For many of their families, this means that they cannot provide and are left to depend on their loved one’s support while they wait for their day in court. Plus, waiting so long for justice could violate their right to a fair and speedy trial.

The Constitution of the United States explicitly states that everyone accused of a crime deserves a “fair and speedy trial.” This means that from arrest to sentencing, the court may not hold a defendant for years at a time or race through the process too quickly. South Carolina courts are struggling to uphold this and as more crimes occur and more people are arrested, the risk of further rights violations could continue to increase.

Not only does this issue affect constitutional rights, but it also jeopardizes evidence. Certain types of evidence have an expiration date and if a case takes years to resolve, then the evidence could be compromised. DNA evidence can decay and be lost to time.

It is unclear how the courts will resolve these issues but until then, victims like Tra’Quan and defendants will continue to wait for justice.

If you have been accused of a crime, contact the Law Office of James R. Snell, Jr., LLC.

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