BENNETTSVILLE, SC (WJZY) – Tammy Bullock walked into the Marlboro County jail Thursday morning in handcuffs and flanked by two Bennettsville Police investigators. Once inside, Bullock was let into the jail’s booking area.
We could see into the booking room through windows inside the jail’s sally port.
Bullock appeared to joke with jailers as they prepared her booking sheets and took her mugshots. One jailer, whose uniform identified her as D. Bostic, a 1st Sergeant, pretended to jokingly smack Bullock’s hand as Bullock and the jailers appeared to be laughing together as Bostic rolled Bullock’s fingers through the black ink.
Jailers had Bullock take her shoes off and handed her a pair of jail slippers. The jailer placed Bullock’s shoes into a black bag. We watched the entire booking process from a public area outside the jailhouse. We watched until Bullock was walked out of the booking area and into another part of the jail. We never saw Bullock change out of her street clothes to put on a jail-issued uniform before being walked out of the booking area and into another section of the jail.
Bullock was arrested Thursday morning after a judge issued Bennettsville police a warrant charging Bullock with pointing and presenting a firearm, a felony under South Carolina’s criminal code. The charge stems from a Feb. 3 argument between Bullock and her then-roommate, Shanda Nash.
Nash called police to report Bullock stood over her and pointed a gun in her face during the argument inside their Bennettsville home. “I’ll f—ing shoot you Shanda,” Nash quoted Bullock saying to her as she lay on her back looking up at Bullock’s handgun. Bennettsville police charged Bullock with a misdemeanor count of pointing and presenting a handgun.
After a FOX 46 investigation into how the department charged Bullock, Chief Kevin Miller asked the city’s attorney to review the case and how Bullock was charged. Miller also asked the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate his department’s handling of the case.
Bullock’s bond hearing was set for some time between 8:30 and 9 a.m. Thursday. We only know that because Nash said she got a call from 1st Sergeant Bostic around 7:50 a.m. to tell her about the bond hearing.
Nash immediately left her house and drove to the jail. A jailer who answered the intercom outside the public access door told Nash and her daughter, who was a witness in the case, to wait in their car until they’re called by the judge.
Around 8:33 a.m., Bostic opened the public access door and shouted for “The victim.” Nash and her daughter walked to the door and Bostic would not allow Nash’s daughter into the courtroom. A few minutes later, Nash walked out of the door to say Judge Larry Rogers told her he was setting Bullock’s bond at $5,000 and ordering Bullock to have no contact with Nash, either “director or indirect,” Nash said the judge told her through a window in the jail.
Nash said the judge ended the discussion with her and she was escorted out of the jail door. Nash, nor her daughter, were allowed into the bond hearing, which is a court proceeding open to anyone in the public. A few minutes later, jailers summoned Bullock’s attorney into the courtroom and locked the public door behind him.
FOX 46 Chief Investigator Jody Barr asked to be let into the bond hearing, as well. Barr asked jailers to let the judge know our crew was outside waiting to be let in to watch the hearing. Marlboro County jail Warden Kevin Thomas walked out the public access door to tell Barr neither the judge nor the jail would allow anyone into the hearing.
Here’s the transcript of that conversation:
WARDEN: “Are you with the news media?”
BARR: “Yes, sir.”
WARDEN: “The reason we’re not letting you in is because of COVID. So that’s the reason why we’re limiting it to our people in the jail at this time, okay?”
BARR: “What’s the judge’s name?”
WARDEN: “What’s the judge’s name?”
BARR: “The judge who made the – because I’m going to call the Supreme Court and file a complaint.”
WARDEN: “File a complaint on what?”
BARR: “You can’t just; they can’t disallow people into a public court and watch the proceedings in a courtroom.”
WARDEN: “Okay, well, I’ll let him (Judge Rogers) talk to you.”
Rogers never spoke with FOX 46. Over an intercom conversation with the jail, Barr was told Judge Rogers didn’t “Have time” to discuss Bullock’s hearing or the results of his bond setting.
A search of the South Carolina Bar’s members directory does not show Rogers holds a law degree or is a member of the state bar.
SUPREME COURT COMPLAINT
Despite the Marlboro County jail warden’s assertion the jail’s courtrooms are closed because of the pandemic, the South Carolina Supreme Court’s web site shows Marlboro County bond courts are operating in a “Normal,” status.
Only the Marlboro County Probate Court and the Municipal Court are operating under a “Limited” status. Bullock’s hearing was held in a bond courtroom.
We could not reach Judge Rogers on Thursday. We filed a complaint with the state Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel to have Rogers’ decision to block the victim, the witness, and the public from Bullock’s court appearance investigated by the court’s investigative unit.
The complaint was filed on Nov. 4. We informed Rogers, through email, of the complaint and offered the judge the opportunity to provide a response and explanation as to why he blocked public access to Bullock’s hearing.
Judge Rogers did not respond to our request.
“Article I, Sec. 9 of the SC Constitution requires all courts to be open unless there has been a hearing in which a party moving to close a court proceeding demonstrates that closure is necessary to protect a higher governmental interest and closure is the only method available to protect that interest,” South Carolina First Amendment attorney Jay Bender told FOX 46.
Bender has practiced media law in South Carolina for nearly 50 years and is widely recognized as the state’s legal expert on the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Bender said because of Rogers’ actions “the public was excluded from the bond hearing illegally.”
“Open courts are our guarantee that justice will be administered fairly,” Bender told Barr, “Secret courts invite abuse.”
SC SUPREME COURT: Constitution ‘Guarantees’ open courts
The public’s – and media outlets’ – rights to attend court hearings was the subject of a 2006 South Carolina Supreme Court order in a case where Greenville-area news outlets were locked out of court proceedings in a death penalty trial in 2003 over a judge’s concerns about pre-trial publicity.
This case, “…lays it out very clearly,” Bender told FOX 46 of how the state Constitution deems all courtrooms in the state open to anyone who wants in.
Circuit Court Judge Buddy Nicholson, Jr. would not allow reporters into a pre-trial evidence suppression hearing in the murder trial of Charles Christopher Williams. Williams was initially charged with assault and battery with intent to kill after he assaulted a woman as she left her grocery store job in Greenville, according to the Supreme Court’s 2006 order.
Williams got out on bond and went back to the grocery store with a shotgun and held the victim hostage in an hours-long standoff with police. When police “stormed” the store they found the victim dead, shot four times with a shotgun.
The SC Supreme Court found the judge in the 2003 trial had no right to close the courtroom to the public. The court also found the judge worked to move the case out of town to reduce media coverage. The trial court held most of the pre-trial proceedings in Anderson (South Carolina) in hopes that the media would not attend,” the 2006 order stated.
“The rights of the public and the press to attend criminal trials are guaranteed by the South Carolina Constitution and the United States Constitution,” former South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal wrote in the court’s order. Toal was joined by four other justices in the decision.
The Supreme Court reminded South Carolina judges closing courtrooms can only be done under strict circumstances and not because of a judge’s concerns over the publicity of a particular case, “Additionally, we take this opportunity to reiterate that jury voir dire is the preferred and generally accepted tool that protects a defendant from the prejudicial effects of pre-trial publicity,” Toal wrote.
In the Greenville case, the justices wrote that Judge Nicholson “applied the proper legal standard” in his decision to close the court, but that he was not justified in doing so and the court reversed Nicholson’s decision to close the courtroom.
The test for closing a courtroom is “a substantial probability of prejudice from publicity that closure would prevent and [that] there’s no reasonable alternatives,” to preventing harm for a defendant’s right to a fair trial the court wrote in the 2006 opinion.
We’ve asked Judge Rogers for comment, but as of the posting of this report, Rogers has not responded.