Why is Horry County sending some of its most violent criminals to Florence?

Prosecutors cross-trained as assistant U.S. attorneys have been prosecuting gun offenders in federal court for the past eight months.
Prosecutors cross-trained as assistant U.S. attorneys have been prosecuting gun offenders in federal court for the past eight months.

What happens to Horry County’s most violent offenders?

If they used a gun, prosecutors say, there’s a chance they’ll be sent to federal court in Florence, South Carolina, where the prison terms for gun crimes are longer, the chance of bonding out is lower and the chance of getting sent to an out-of-state prison is higher.

Federal prosecutors have been taking some state cases for a couple years, said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Lance Crick.

Over the past eight months state prosecutors in Horry County, cross trained as federal prosecutors, have been sending people accused of gun crimes to the federal court in Florence, South Carolina .

“There’s a new focus at the federal level against violent crime,” said 15th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson. “There could be a time in the future depending on who the president is, violent crime might not be as important as it is right now.”

Myrtle Beach defense attorney William Monckton said the Obama administration didn’t focus on gun crime the way the current administration does.

“The federal government for whatever reason, they didn’t have the focus from the prosecution from the federal level to prosecute the gun cases,” he said, adding that the cross-trained prosecutors are taking some pressure off the U.S. attorneys who are often busy with drug cases.

The county has sent about 50 offenders to federal court since the cross-trained prosecutors began working, Richardson said. Those state prosecutors have been trained to work as assistant U.S. attorneys in federal courts, picking out cases suitable for federal prosecution.

“We’re not sending people there for skipping Sunday school,” said Richardson. “They’re the worst of the worst. The main question we ask is ‘[Is] this a person we need to put away for a long time?’” he said. “If it’s a dangerous criminal, if it’s a bad actor, we pick those. So we’re not sending everything, just some of our worst players. And it’s working. It allows those communities to enjoy peace and quiet.”

Prosecutors could press federal charges for gang members who law enforcement believes are shooting at victims who don’t come forward because they’re afraid or — like the shooters — are also engaged in illegal behavior, he said.

“There’s a few names where you know if we could get these guys off the streets it would be a lot safer, but we can’t get anyone to testify,” noted Richardson, who cited the case of Jamal Lewis, who was sentenced to more than 20 years on gun charges.

Police arrested Lewis in Myrtle Beach on March 30, 2015 and charged with attempted murder, as well as drug and gun charges, according to an affidavit.

Witnesses observed Lewis firing a gun at a victim before running to hide in an apartment, police said.

But state prosecutors couldn’t make the attempted murder charges stick when the victim wouldn’t cooperate, Richardson said. Lewis bonded out on the charges.

“Jamal Lewis was charged in our office with attempted murder and our victim would not cooperate,” Richardson said.

When state prosecutors learned that the victim in their attempted murder case wouldn’t cooperate, they abandoned the attempted murder charge and turned to the feds. He was sentenced in May 2016.

“We took him to federal custody on a firearms charge and he got 262 months,” he said. “Obviously we could have got him on the drugs but we sent him up and they took him federally and he got 262 months after a trial.”

Crick said the U.S. Attorney’s office has been working with state prosecutors to send bad guys to federal court for about two years, but the cross-trained prosecutors have helped increase the number of cases referred to Florence in recent months.

“I think you’ve seen a quicker identification of cases for federal prosecution,” Crick said. “If we can spot these cases quickly, we can get them in federal court without weeks or months going by.”

According to Crick, benefits of federal prosecution include mandatory minimum sentences for career criminals, a lower chance of bonding out, and prison sentences which require convicts to serve 85 percent of their term.

“We do have the ability to request detention in the bond phase,” he said. “In other words, a bond will not be set. If a person is detained, they remain in custody until their case in resolved.”

“The benefits are securing our communities and doing so in an expedited fashion,” he said.

Monckton said the penalties in federal court are more severe, but that the standards for evidence are the same.

“It’s just a different court system, different procedures,” he said. “It goes a lot quicker because there’s a right to a speedy trial in the federal system.”

And unlike the state system, Monckton said the harsher penalties in the federal system are designed to make people cooperate with law enforcement and possibly hand over the bigger fish in the criminal food chain.

“In the state system, there’s not an incentive to cooperate,” he said, adding that the only way to get out of the mandatory federal sentence is for a federal prosecutor to agree to a plea deal. “In the federal system, there’s incentive for my guy to cooperate.”

Christian Boschult: 843-626-0218, @TSN_Christian