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State v. Jeroid Price – Can an Inmate Get a Super-Secret Sentence Reduction Without a Hearing in South Carolina?

State v. Jeroid Price – Can an Inmate Get a Super-Secret Sentence Reduction Without a Hearing in South Carolina?
Axelrod & Associates, P.A.

Earlier this year, Jeroid Price was in the news because, according to media reports, he had been released from his incarceration for murder in a secret backroom deal between a defense attorney and Columbia, SC, Fifth Judicial Circuit Solicitor Byron E. Gipson.

No hearing, no motions filed, and even the order had been sealed…

Last week, the SC Supreme Court issued an opinion explaining their decision to vacate the previous order reducing Price’s sentence because 1) ” the solicitor and the circuit court did not comply with any of the requirements set forth in the applicable statute, and 2) the circuit court did not have the authority to close the proceedings to the public or seal the order.”

What Happened with Jeroid Price and His Sentence Reduction?

Price was convicted of murder in 2003 and sentenced to 35 years in prison. In December of 2022, defense attorney Todd Rutherford and Fifth Judicial Circuit Solicitor Byron E. Gipson agreed to a consent order releasing Price from prison under SC Code § 17-25-65, more than 15 years early.

Rutherford and Gipson then “met privately” with now-retired circuit court judge L. Casey Manning (before he was circuit solicitor, Gipson was Judge Manning’s law clerk), who signed the order. There is no record of the meeting, which took place in the judge’s chambers, and the victim’s family was not notified that the meeting was happening or that Price’s sentence was being reduced.

The order was placed in a sealed envelope and given to the clerk of court, but the order was not filed or made public, and there is no record in the clerk’s file that anything took place in the case.

The Timeline for Jeroid Price’s Release and Re-Incarceration:

  • Gipson and Rutherford agree to a sentence reduction of more than 15 years for Jeroid Price,
  • On December 30, 2022, Judge Manning signs an order releasing Price, without a hearing or notice to the victim’s family,
  • On March 15, 2023, SCDC releases Price,
  • On April 17, 2023, media outlets report that Price was released,
  • On April 18, 2023, the Attorney General of SC files a motion to unseal the order,
  • On April 19, 2023, Gipson requests that the court unseal the order,
  • On April 20, 2023, the SC Supreme Court issues a common-law writ of certiorari and orders the circuit court to unseal the order,
  • On April 20, 2023, the Attorney General files a petition with the SC Supreme Court asking the court to declare the order releasing Price void,
  • On April 26, 2023, the SC Supreme Court vacates the order reducing Price’s sentence and orders law enforcement to arrest him and return him to prison, and
  • On September 6, 2023, the SC Supreme Court issues a written opinion explaining their decision.

What are the Requirements for Sentence Reduction in South Carolina?

How many times have we explained to clients that cases are not settled in secret back-room deals?

Apparently, we were wrong. For Judge Manning, Solicitor Gipson, and Representative Rutherford, perhaps, cases are settled in secret back-room deals. Or were, before the media blew it up…

The sentence reduction itself wasn’t illegal or improper, apart from how it was done.

It is legal for the solicitor to ask for a sentence reduction when an inmate cooperates in another case or aids a correctional officer. What’s not legal is for the solicitor and a judge to agree to a sentence reduction in secret, not file a motion, not have a hearing, not notify the victim’s family, and not file the order with the clerk’s office…

SC Code § 17-25-65 says that the solicitor can move for a sentence reduction if the inmate provides substantial assistance in investigating or prosecuting another person (the unsealed documents said that Price provided substantial assistance by notifying authorities that another inmate had escaped) or provides aid to a SCDC employee who is in danger of being seriously injured or killed (the unsealed documents said that Price assisted a correctional officer who was attacked by another inmate).

But SC Code § 17-25-65 requires the solicitor to:

  • File a written motion with the clerk’s office,
  • Send a copy of the motion to the chief judge of the circuit within five days of filing, and
  • Argue the motion at a hearing conducted by the chief judge of the circuit or a circuit judge currently assigned to the county.

None of these things were done. Furthermore, Article I, Section 9 of the SC Constitution mandates that all courts must be public, and SC Code § 14-5-10 requires that all proceedings in the circuit court be recorded – this “hearing” was not public, and no court recorder was present.

Finally, the “Victims’ Bill of Rights” requires that notice be given to a victim before an inmate is released or a dispositive hearing is held in their case, and that was not done here.

Should the Court Have Reversed the Order Reducing Price’s Sentence?

The majority opinion found that the solicitor’s failure to file a written motion and the court’s failure to hold a public hearing justified reversal of the order reducing Price’s sentence.

The dissent points out that, in other cases where the appellate courts have considered a circuit court’s failure to hold a public hearing, the appellate courts have reversed the circuit court’s order denying public access to the courts but upheld the substantive orders.

By reversing the substantive order in this case, the Court is providing cover for the Solicitor’s Office and saving them from themselves:

A sentence reduction under section 17-25-65 is not possible unless the State of South Carolina asks for the reduction. Here, if the State had refused to ask for a sentence reduction for Price, that would have been the end of it. However, the State sought and obtained the very sentence reduction it now asks this Court to vacate. The State prepared the sentence reduction order and presented it to the circuit judge for his signature. In doing so, the State created the unfortunate state of affairs the State now asks this Court to untangle… We should not permit the State to resort to the judicial branch for relief from the State’s own poor choices, as embarrassing as they may be for the State.

The State (the Solicitor) asked the State (the circuit court) to reduce a convicted murderer’s sentence in a secret proceeding. A judge – who was about to retire and who the solicitor used to work for as a law clerk – went along with it.

The media discovered what had happened, so the State (the Attorney General) asked the State (the SC Supreme Court) to undo what the State had done.

The dissenting justices on the SC Supreme Court believe that the order reducing Price’s sentence should be made public, as it should have been in the first place, but there are no grounds to reverse the order reducing Price’s sentence (apart from the appellate court cleaning up the circuit court’s mess).

Can Jeroid Price Still Get a Sentence Reduction?

Presumably, there is no reason Jeroid Price cannot still get a sentence reduction.

If his cooperation and assistance to the corrections officer are documented and provable, the solicitor just needs to file a written motion asking for the sentence reduction, send a copy of the written motion to the chief administrative judge for the circuit, and have a hearing where they publicly ask the court to reduce Price’s sentence pursuant to the statute.

What if the solicitor refuses to file the motion now that he has been publicly humiliated for not following rules and engaging in secret hijinks to release a convicted murderer?

Clearly, the solicitor believes that Price deserves a sentence reduction – more than 15 years, and possibly the largest sentence reduction in the history of sentence reductions in South Carolina. Can the solicitor just refuse to ask for a sentence reduction now?

Does Price have grounds for a motion to force the solicitor to follow through with his initial request for a sentence reduction?

Got Axelrod?

If you have been charged with a crime in SC, if you have been convicted of a crime and need help filing your appeal, if you won an appeal and need help retrying your case, or if you have been convicted of a crime and need help negotiating a sentence reduction based on substantial assistance, call now at 843-353-3449 or email us online to speak with a criminal defense lawyer on the Axelrod team today.

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