When circuit solicitors need more tools, more people or more of anything else to prosecute cases in South Carolina, they can call Duffie Stone.
Stone knows who to call in Columbia.
The chairman of the state’s Commission on Prosecution Coordination, his fellow commissioners and the agency’s staff work closely with senior members of the General Assembly, including House Speaker G. Murrell Smith Jr., on matters from drafting bills to appropriating funds for solicitors’ offices.
“We’re the voice for the solicitors in Columbia in many ways,” said Stone, who also serves as 14th Circuit solicitor.
He and the commission are go-to information sources for legislators. One example is the scores of state-mandated reports the agency files with the General Assembly each year.
Lawmakers also seek solicitors’ opinions on bills. Stone pointed to two commission members who made key differences: Kevin Brackett from the 16th Circuit, who worked with legislators on a fentanyl-trafficking bill, and the 9th Circuit’s Scarlet Wilson, who worked on a bond-reform bill.
Topping all of the commission’s services is education, something largely unseen by the public. Though Stone already held a degree from USC Law when he took over the 14th Circuit in 2006, he had to go back to school.
“The first program that the commission puts on is Solicitor 101,” he said. “That’s basically a class where you are the new solicitor, and we’re going to show you how the solicitor’s office works.”
Case prosecution is just part of it. The class covers “everything to do with managing the office,” he said, including budgeting, administration, procedures, administrative and legal restrictions, funding sources and applicable laws.
“The Solicitor 101 program was the first thing I got out of the commission,” he said.
The agency also is a technological boon for solicitors. Its efforts include case-management software, evidence storage and a statewide database to better organize and disseminate information about crimes and cases.
It also works on a new field — video from officers’ bodycams. Video must be stored, managed and then provided to defense lawyers.
“That’s before you’re talking about us actually viewing it and using it,” Stone said.
Despite its name, prosecutors are a minority on the 11-member Commission on Prosecution Coordination. It is composed of Stone, Wilson, Bracket and two other solicitors, all appointed by the governor; one member each from the S.C. Senate and House; the chief of the State Law Enforcement Division; the director of the Department of Public Safety; and one representative each from victim advocates and services and from diversion services.
A bill before the General Assembly would add the attorney general to the agency, as well. The proposal also contains a provision that Stone agrees with: Voting power on the commission would be limited to its solicitors.
“It’s our position that only solicitors should be voting on solicitors’ business,” he said.
The commission also works to strengthen a system for prosecuting cases that is dependent on a key element — personnel.
“[T]here has to be a sufficient number of prosecutors to put in place a three-tier system: triage, preparation and running court,” he said.
Triage separates the cases that will go to trial from those that will enter diversion programs or be dismissed. Preparation is the research, evidence review and other work that prepare a solicitor for the trial. “Running court” is just that — trying cases.
Solicitors’ offices need enough people to work on all three tiers without any of them having to work on two tiers simultaneously. Without too few on the staff, cases linger on the docket or solicitors run the risk of going into a trial less than well-prepared.
“I think everyone recognizes that you need a certain number of prosecutors,” Stone said. “What people don’t recognize is your performance in the courtroom is dependent on how much preparation you put in.”
With the commission, he went to Smith, the House speaker, in 2022 to get money for the system. They came back with $15 million for solicitors’ staffing and $11 million for public defenders.
But just hiring a legion of prosecutors isn’t enough. A lawyer who could work in a solicitor’s office for a modest salary could earn much more in private practice, making it easier to pay off student loans, buy a home, rear a family and enjoy a better life.
“From a prosecutor’s standpoint, I think [solicitors] ought to be paid like people in private practice,” Stone said.
Representative of justice
While the commission takes up much of Stone’s time, he still leads prosecutions in the 14th Circuit, which is composed of Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties in the southern corner of the state. Initially approached for an interview in September, he declined, saying he was busy preparing for a murder case only a week later.
Talking about his cases, he often offers a punishment-must-fit-the-crime outlook. One he cited involved a running gunfight between three men; an errant shot killed an innocent 8-year-old boy.
“I didn’t think it was right to just prosecute the triggerman. … We had to find laws in South Carolina to hold all three culpable,” he said.
Careful research turned up a 1915 case that established the concept of “mutual combat,” covering a fight with multiple people where if one person dies, all involved are responsible.
“It was one of the more challenging cases because we didn’t have a clear law to do what we thought we should do in the situation,” he said.
Punishment isn’t always the best option, though. As a hypothetical, Stone said, a service veteran who fought the nation’s enemies overseas might be fighting alcoholism or drug abuse at home. When he runs afoul of the law, the best answer might be a diversion program such as a veterans court instead of a trial.
It falls to the solicitor to make the determination.
“As a prosecutor, your duty is to get to the truth and do what’s right. In a legal sense, they say you’re a minister of justice,” Stone said.