© 2024 South Carolina Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Justices cancel order cutting 16 years off murder sentence

Lille Smalls, left, and her husband Carl Smalls Sr., right, pose at the South Carolina Statehouse after a news conference to speak about the killer of their son getting a deal to knock 16 years off his 35-year sentence for murder on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. The South Carolina Supreme Court canceled the deal on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, after a hearing. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Jeffrey Collins/AP
/
ap
Lille Smalls, left, and her husband Carl Smalls Sr., right, pose at the South Carolina Statehouse after a news conference to speak about the killer of their son getting a deal to knock 16 years off his 35-year sentence for murder on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. The South Carolina Supreme Court canceled the deal on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, after a hearing. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

Justices on South Carolina's highest court on Wednesday erased an order that cut 16 years off a convicted murderer's sentence, a deal the inmate won by reporting another prisoner's escape that had gone undetected for two days.

The 3-2 ruling came less than two hours after the South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments about Jeroid Price's case. The justices wrote that they would explain their decision later and ordered law enforcement to immediately find Price and bring him back into state prison custody.

During arguments Wednesday, the justices said they didn't like that the deal was kept secret, including from the parents of the man Price killed. The high court also noted that no formal hearing was held before Price walked out of prison 19 years into his 35-year sentence for a 2002 killing at a Columbia club.

The elected prosecutor signed off on the deal and he appears to be blamed for not following procedure.

"We are here to right wrongs," Supreme Court Associate Justice John Kittredge said during 90 minutes of arguments. "Procedure matters."

The justices said they would carefully craft their written ruling because they aren't just deciding whether Price goes back to prison, but also the parameters of a program allowing early release for inmates who help prison officials.

The hearing and decision was extraordinarily quick for a case that came into public view just nine days earlier.

Price was convicted of murder in December 2002 for shooting Carl Smalls Jr. during a party at a club. Prosecutors said Price was a gang member who thought Smalls was a member of a rival organization and that Smalls had disrespected him.

Price, 43, was sentenced to 35 years in prison and in South Carolina convicted murderers have to serve every day of their sentence unless they provide substantial information about other crimes or help prison guards in danger of being attacked.

Price's lawyer, Todd Rutherford, said in 2017 his client called to tell him inmate Jimmy Causey had been missing for two days and state prison officials had not figured out he was gone. Causey was serving a life sentence for tying up his lawyer and family because he was unhappy about his attorney's work.

Rutherford said he called the state prisons director immediately after Price told him Causey had escaped, and that up until then guards hadn't realized Causey was gone.

At the end of 2022, Rutherford asked Solicitor Byron Gipson to reduce Price's sentence based on him having reported the escape and stories that he kept two guards from serious injuries during attacks. Rutherford and Gipson spoke privately with a judge, then worked out details of Price's reduced sentence over email before the judge signed off on it.

Rutherford said he asked the motion be kept secret to protect Price's safety both inside the prison and after his release, fearing he would be attacked for cooperating with authorities.

"His continued existence at the Department of Corrections would be a death sentence," Rutherford said.

The parents of Price's victim were in the audience for Wednesday's hearing.

"I don't know why anyone agreed to this," Carl Smalls said. "And I'm upset we didn't get a say."

Several state Supreme Court justices said Gipson, who was in the courtroom but did not speak, created a mess.

Attorney General Alan Wilson, who argued on Gipson's behalf, said "the state failed in this process."