Last summer, I wrote that my media outlet would be giving newly appointed South Carolina circuit court judge Heath Preston Taylor the benefit of the doubt. The circumstances surrounding Taylor’s appointment to the bench were certainly troubling, but I vowed at the time to let the judge “prove to me – and others watching – that he is capable of demonstrating a genuine commitment to even-handed justice for our citizens (all of our citizens).”
Less than a year later, however, it pains me to report Taylor is falling into the same bad habit of so many judges who have come before him (and will come after him barring real reform to our failed system): Showing preferential treatment to violent defendants represented by powerful lawyer-legislators.
On March 11, 2023, 45-year-old Lantz Lewayne Cox of Charleston, S.C. was arrested and charged with kidnapping, assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature and second degree arson following an incident involving his former girlfriend.
“I’m going to burn the whole motherfucker down,” Cox said as he held the woman against her will and set fire to furniture inside her home.
Cox also allegedly snatched his victim’s cell phone from her hands and threw it across the room – leaving her temporarily unable to call for help.
Cox was given a $90,000 surety bond on all of these charges – and one of the conditions of his bond was that he refrain from contacting his victim. He didn’t … refrain, that is. According to court documents (.pdf), Cox violated his bond on April 5, 2023 when he sent his victim flowers using an alias – and again two days later when he sent her multiple text messages.
On April 10, 2023, prosecutors in the office of S.C. first circuit solicitor David Pascoe moved to revoke Cox’s bond based on these violations – and four days later S.C. circuit court judge Maite Murphy (appropriately) accommodated this request.
What did Cox do after his bond was revoked? What anyone who has been paying attention to how “justice” works in the Palmetto State would do: He retained a powerful lawyer-legislator in Dorchester County with connections to the local judges to undo this decision.
On May 24, 2023, Cox’s new attorney – state representative Chris Murphy – filed a motion (.pdf) to reinstate his bond, claiming his client would agree to “zero tolerance for any violation of these conditions.”
The gambit worked, too …
Astoundingly – and yet totally unsurprisingly given the rampant corruption of South Carolina’s system – Taylor reinstated Cox’s bond following a court hearing last Friday (June 9, 2023). This decision (.pdf) was reached despite the defendant acknowledging he “violated the no contact order” – and despite the judge acknowledging the fact the alleged victim in this case “was present at the hearing and indicated she is afraid of (Cox) and does not wish for him to be released.”
Not only that, Taylor noted in his reinstatement order that Cox “suffers from depression” and recently “attempted suicide.”
Wait … what?
So to recap: A violent, unstable defendant who admittedly violated the conditions of his bond was released back onto the streets for no other reason than he hired a lawyer-legislator to plead his case in front of a friendly judge.
“This is Taylor doing what he does best – giving a lawyer-legislator what he wants, a bond for a very dangerous individual after a judge already revoked his bond,” a prosecutor following the case told us this week.
Bookmark this page, people … because it will be an absolute miracle if Taylor’s appalling error in judgment doesn’t have tragic consequences.
As I have often reminded our audience, South Carolina is one of only two states in the nation in which the legislature picks judges. It’s actually much worse than that, though. In the Palmetto State, lawmakers control a cliquish “judicial merit selection” committee which chooses which candidates are even allowed to be considered for judgeships.
And you better believe “merit” has very little to do with those deliberations … especially under the “leadership” of this panel’s new chairman.
As we have seen in far too many cases, lawyer-legislators routinely reap the rewards of their undue influence over this process by receiving preferential treatment on behalf of their clients. Such preferential treatment has enabled institutional corruption, shredded the rights of victims, empowered violent criminals and materially eroded public safety. It has also turned the ostensibly independent judiciary into little more than a political annex of the legislature.
Sadly, not even the most egregious examples of institutional malfeasance have led lawmakers to reform their badly broken system – although a bipartisan push by a handful of courageous lawmakers to at least begin addressing the issue has gained some momentum in recent months.
Is that enough? Hell no …
While I commend all of the lawmakers and advocates working to enact reform, the abuses of the current system are clearly outpacing their efforts. When it comes to the issue of judicial reform in South Carolina, the time for half-measures is over. It is time to think big … and act fast.