Charleston City Paper by Greg Hambrick
While there can be only one solicitor, there were two deputy solicitors when Ralph Hoisington died last year — and both had eyes on his seat. Scarlett Wilson, who was then the chief deputy solicitor, won the appointment by Gov. Mark Sanford to finish out Hoisington's term. Now, she'll face former Deputy Solicitor Blair Jennings, who ran the district's Berkeley office until Wilson asked for his resignation last summer.
Jennings had told Wilson that he would be leaving the office at some point before the election. After he responded to a reporter's questions on a high-profile case — against Wilson's instructions — she says she had no choice but to ask for his resignation early.
"Anybody who's been a leader can understand what happens when you have someone who has their own agenda and won't follow instructions," she says. "Where I was naive was not realizing how it would be used by the other side. (Jennings) was not surprised by what happened."
But Jennings says he was surprised. He says that he had told Wilson about the questions from the media and that, while it's true he was planning to leave at some point, the forced resignation came down to politics.
Though Wilson is running the office, she has yet to earn the endorsement of voters (her signs read: KeepScarlett Wilson Your Solicitor). That said, perception may be close enough to reality to swing voters her way.
Meanwhile, Jennings is keeping his name in the papers through his new role as legal counsel and spokesperson for the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office, getting print on a host of drug busts and murder investigations in Berkeley County, even if he no longer carries the authority of the prosecutor's chair.
More so than for other elected offices, the race for solicitor is essentially a job interview. Voters are certainly free to vote for someone for any reason, but experience and grit can often be more important than whether it's someone you can have a beer with. A shark in the courtroom is more important than the solicitor's underwear.
The department was running well under Hoisington, but Wilson says she's improving on that success with her own ideas — and she's seeing results.
Wilson says she's worked with local law enforcement and municipal leaders to target repeat offenders or defendants who violate bond conditions.
"These come back to consequences," she says. "As it is right now, defendants who are out there, especially those in the drug trade, don't see any consequences in what they're doing."
While the solicitor doesn't have the resources to handle every probation violation, Wilson says she'd like to have the office involved with serious cases that include violence or gun possession.
"Probation violators carrying guns are just waiting in line for a murder charge," she says.
Jennings also says that he'll increase prosecutions of repeat drug offenders and drug dealers.
"Some of the feedback from local law enforcement is that it's not a focus, and it certainly should be," he says.
Jennings points to his record of 60 homicide convictions (though critics have noted that number includes many cases that never went to trial). He's prosecuted 15 people serving life in prison and shared duties with Hoisington in the death penalty case of Jessie Sapp.
Wilson argues that she's tried almost twice the number of murder cases in the past six years.
"That's time in the trenches," she says. "I've got battle scars. That's important for the community and it's important for my staff."
Running on his "hands-on" approach to leadership, Jennings says that building relationships with law enforcement was an important part of his work in Berkeley County.
"It's not only about working with them," he says. "It's about doing what you can to provide assistance."
Jennings gave legal updates when laws were changed, along with refresher courses and 24-hour assistance. The cooperation also came in shifting priorities to address a certain problem, he says, like a string of Goose Creek burglaries that received priority status to stem the problem. He's also worked with the sheriff's office to shut down trouble-plagued nightclubs like Bada-Bing and has helped develop a local 2 a.m. bar closing ordinance since his resignation.
Wilson says she's implemented an aggressive murder docket, scheduling trials six months in advance to avoid scheduling conflicts that could mean months in delays.
"We've tried more murder cases and moved more murder cases than ever before," she says.
The department has reduced the backlog of cases — ranked among the bottom in the state's 16 districts several years ago, it's now moved up to third.
In regards to trial scheduling, Jennings takes credit for that, saying he had first used it in Berkeley County.
"I came up with the system," he says.
After Jennings' exit, Wilson says she found the family court flailing in Berkeley County. Family court is often used in non-violent cases to help teens avoid jail time. Cases weren't being handled, she says, dragging on until the juveniles weren't juveniles anymore.
"The court is there for punishment," she says. "But it's also for rehabilitation. That's our chance to turn these people around who are going down the wrong path."
Jennings says he was already making changes when he was forced out and notes that his office was running on a seventh of the budget of the Charleston office with about 25 percent of the case load.
"We were getting a lot more done with a lot less resources," he says.
The results Wilson has seen since Jennings' exit have largely been due to additional staff, he says.
Wilson says that she wants to make sure voters know that "this isn't six of one, half dozen of the other," pointing to the larger staff and resources that were applied in her role serving the entire district.
"When you look at the size of this operation, the person with the most experience and the most success is me," she says.
But Jennings argues that his years in Berkeley County were more valuable, leading prosecutions and handling administrative duties.
"It's a pretty substantial difference to be running an office and to be working in an office," he says.