COLUMBIA, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Marlboro County was 19 days away from starting work to seat a jury in the inmate abuse case against suspended Sheriff Charles Lemon.
The county and Lemon’s waited 21 months for the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office to bring the allegations against Lemon to trial.
That was supposed to happen on Sept. 5; six months after Lemon and his defense attorney, Morgan Martin, filed a speedy trial motion in March.
But instead of giving Lemon the speedy trial, the AG’s Office confirmed the agency has now asked the court to delay Lemon’s trial until January, “if possible,” AG spokesman Robert Kittle wrote in an email to Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr.
When asked the reason the AG wanted the case delayed 19 days before trial, “We can’t comment,” Kittle wrote in an August 17, 2023, email to Barr. Kittle did not explain why the state’s top prosecuting office refused to tell the public its reasons for postponing the trial.
There is no guarantee Marlboro County’s General Sessions court can pull a jury and has the court time to hold the trial in January. That could further delay Lemon’s day in court.
Lemon has told people in Marlboro County he intends to seek re-election to get his job back from interim Sheriff Larry McNeil, who was appointed to lead the MCSO after Lemon’s indictment in 2021. Filing for the sheriff’s race opens in March 2024 with a primary set for May and the general election set for November.
Frequent checks of the Lemon case file at the Marlboro County Clerk of Court’s records room showed no filings, court hearings, or motions scheduled in the case since the AG’s office convinced the county grand jury to indict Lemon and former deputy Andrew Cook on assault and battery of a high and aggravated, a felony, and misconduct in office charges on Dec. 14, 2021.
Assistant Attorney General Heather Weiss is prosecuting the case, but Weiss did not respond to prior questions about the case when contacted by QCN.
Instead, the AG’s office provided no information about the status of Lemon’s case in the past 21 months, other than to say state prosecutors had no update when asked for monthly updates on this and the cases connected to our ‘Final Disrespects’ investigation.
The Lemon/Cook indictments stem from a May 3, 2020, jailhouse body camera recording showing Cook using a Taser on Jarrel Johnson. Johnson was uncuffed and the video showed Lemon ordering Cook to “Pop it to him,” and to “Stick that taser to his head,” and to ‘Give him what he ask for,” what appeared to be orders from the sheriff to his subordinate to fire the taser into Johnson’s body.
The video shows Johnson lunging toward Lemon after the sheriff is heard berating him off-camera. Deputies arrested Johnson that morning after investigators said he brutally beat his father with a bat, seriously injuring the elder Johnson.
“Ain’t nobody playing with you. It’s Sunday morning, man, I’ve got to go to church, you acting the fool. I know your whole family, I know you (unintelligible) ain’t nobody (unintelligible). If he turns around, pop it to him. Give him what he asked for,” Lemon yelled at the handcuffed man’s face.
The video showed Lemon holding onto Johnson’s left arm as he shouted at the handcuffed man.
As soon as the cuffs were removed, Johnson lunged toward the sheriff. The body camera shows less than two seconds passed from the time Johnson moved until the time his back is against the wall as Cook used his Taser to “drive-stun” Johnson, which caused the man to slide down the wall.
“Get in there,” Cook yelled at Johnson who was sitting on the jail floor with his back against the wall. “Get in there, I’m going to light your ass up. Get in there! Get up Jarrel, quit playing! Look at me. I’m fixing to light you up!”
The red light on Cook’s Taser bounced around Johnson’s chest.
Johnson was still sitting on the floor when Cook shouted another threat to use his Taser, “Turn around, I’m about to light you up with the prongs this time.” The prongs deliver a high voltage, low amperage electric shock to a person. The shock causes neuromuscular incapacitation, “designed to temporarily incapacitate” a person, according to the U.S. Department of Defense Non-Lethal Weapons Program.
“Pop it to him, pop it to him, pop it to him,” Sheriff Lemon yelled at Cook in the recording. The video then shows Cook’s Taser’s prongs deploy as the device clicked as it delivered an electric shock into Johnson’s body. “Get on the f—ing ground! Get down,” Cook continued screaming as his Taser shocked Johnson.
“There you go,” Lemon said.
Cook’s body camera shows him walking around the row of chairs where Johnson’s lying face-down on the jail floor. The video shows Johnson’s now naked body with his gym shorts around his ankles. “I didn’t do it,” Johnson said as Cook continued commanding Johnson to get up off the floor and Lemon ordered Cook to “Pop it to him again.”
The recording shows Lemon asked a jailer, who was standing by during the assault, for a Taser.
Johnson raised up from behind the row of chairs with at least one Taser prong lodged in his body. The video shows two red dots from Cook and Lemon’s Tasers bouncing around on his chest. Johnson, leaning on the back of the row of jailhouse chairs, pointed toward the sheriff.
“If I had one last…,” Johnson didn’t finish the sentence before he’s interrupted by another electric shock from Deputy Cook. “Pop it to him, pop it to him,” Lemon shouts, and Johnson’s body slammed to the concrete jail floor.
“There you go, there you go,” Lemon said as Cook’s Taser clicked, and Johnson’s body seized for the five-second burst of electric shock. Cook again ordered Johnson to get in the holding cell and Johnson moved toward the door. As soon as Johnson moved toward the door, the sheriff again ordered Cook to use force.
“Pop it to him, pop it to him, pop it to him, pop it to him,” Lemon shouted as Cook’s Taser clicked and Johnson fell face-first into the steel holding cell door. The video shows Johnson fell to the floor as another five-second burst of electric shock entered his body.
Johnson’s right leg stiffened and raised off the floor as the Taser continued to click. Most of Johnson’s body was inside the cell door with his legs, from the knee down, sticking out. “There you go,” Sheriff Lemon said as the Taser clicks stopped, and Johnson’s body again fell limp on the floor.
Johnson is lying on the floor as Cook yelled at him to get into the cell again. As soon as Johnson moved to slide his legs into the cell, the sheriff ordered another five-second electric shock. “Pop it to him,” Lemon said as Johnson’s arms lock up.
“There you go,” Lemon said as the Taser’s clicking stopped. Cook asked Lemon for permission to close the jail cell door. Johnson is naked with only his socks on at this point. Cook turned his body camera off at this point and the video ended.
THE MISSING VIDEO
“I’m happy right now for the citizens of Marlboro County, they can finally have some transparency,” Lemon’s lead investigator, Lt. Trevor Murphy, told Barr standing outside the Marlboro County jail on Dec. 14, 2021 – as South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agents were helping the suspended sheriff clean out his patrol truck 100 yards away.
“We knew when we went to SLED with this and when we went to the AG and to you with this stuff that we had to have our Is dotted and our T’s crossed and when we got what we needed and brought it to them; just thank God that some action’s being taken and we can continue moving forward—this wasn’t the only incident. There are many more that need to be investigated and looked into, but this is a start,” Murphy said at the time.
“What do you think caused today?” Barr asked Murphy. “You are a huge part of that. When you started doing some investigative reporting into him, obviously first of all. That’s when we had eyes on it. You’ve been provided the documents that SLED’s been provided. When these things happened in the past, we reached out to SLED through third-party sources, anonymous sources. We reached out to other media outlets, we tried to get the word out there, but our requests became unanswered,” Murphy said.
The jailhouse recording was loaded onto a laptop in a break room inside the sheriff’s office on May 3, 2020. The break room computer was where every deputy in the department downloaded and stored their body camera recordings. The password was taped to the laptop and anyone who walked past the laptop could access any video file stored there.
And those video files could be deleted without a trace.
The video resurfaced sometime in the fall of 2021 when Murphy said a source with a cell phone recording of the original body camera video sent it to him. Murphy later provided a copy of that recording to SLED and to Barr.
Lt. Murphy was at the jail when Johnson was booked in on May 3, 2020 and left before the assault started. Murphy thought a jail cell might not be what Johnson needed and left the jail to find Johnson’s mother to ask about his mental state.
“When asked simple questions like what his name was, he was giving answers that clearly showed you that his mental state was not healthy at that time, which is why I left the jail,” Murphy told us. “I told them he was calm and collected, just standby with him. Let me go speak with a family member of his and find out what his mental health history is, and what we need to do to help him right now. We weren’t familiar with him. We hadn’t – never locked him up before. So, we need to know more about this guy before we just stick him in a jail cell.”
Before Murphy could get back to the jail, the sheriff walked into the jail to have a word with Johnson. The sheriff’s voice was captured on the body camera recording ordering Cook to “Pop it to him” multiple times throughout the two-minute video recording.
Johnson’s mother confirmed to QCN that she met with Murphy that day concerning her son’s mental health.
“I’m going back to the jail, I got a phone call from a deputy (Cook) who was employed at that time, who was at tears and wanting to meet with me at my office and he showed me a video from his body cam footage that was sickening, disturbing, and just outright; almost unbelievable what happened,” Murphy said. Murphy had Cook complete a use of force report and Murphy said he turned that over to Lemon and his command staff.
“It was clear that it was a bad taste and I told the sheriff that day that’s a bad taste; that’s wrong. It was blown off. Nothing was done about it. And I realized that they weren’t going to do anything about it so tried to go around and get the right eyes on it. We contacted ex-law enforcement – he was a current law enforcement officer at the time – but we contacted him through an anonymous number and we contacted two media sources through anonymous numbers, letting them know hey, there’s a man at the Marlboro County Detention Center that’s just been unlawfully tased, you need to look into the situation. Sheriff Charles Lemon was present, there’s body cam footage,” Murphy said.
But neither the law enforcer nor the reporters responded, according to the group of law enforcers we met with on Nov. 16, 2021, where documents supporting the group’s allegations of corruption inside the sheriff’s office were provided to Barr. Those records later became the center of our ‘Lost Trust’ investigation, detailing the collapse of the Marlboro County Sheriff’s Office.
Murphy also included the fact body camera video existed in the Jarrel Johnson arrest warrant, charging the man with assaulting Lemon and resisting arrest. Murphy said the Fourth Circuit Solicitor’s Office also never asked him for a copy of the video when the file was sent to the prosecutor’s office in Bennettsville after the jailhouse incident in May 2020.
The lack of response seemed to confirm what Murphy and his fellow officers feared most: the sheriff was untouchable.
“When you’ve reached out to people that are your out, are your way out, and you’re realizing we’re telling these people stuff that’s going on and they’re not responding, we have no help. There is no safety net. You’re taught in school, something happens, you tell the teacher. We tried to tell the teacher and we didn’t get the help we asked for.”
On Nov. 18, 2021, Barr received an email from Murphy’s sheriff’s office account with an attachment containing a 76-page report titled ‘Lemon Laws,’ a packet of allegations named for Sheriff Charles Lemon. The document was also given to South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agent Lt. Tina Carter. The document contained more than a half-dozen examples of what Murphy and his team described as “unethical or illegal acts committed by fellow members of the Marlboro County Sheriff’s Office.”
The report contained a description of the Johnson tasing under a paragraph titled ‘Police Brutality.’
On Nov. 23, Lt. Trevor Murphy decided to end the anonymous campaign to expose the details contained in the ‘Lemon Laws’ packet. Murphy agreed to be interviewed to discuss the packet he and his investigators compiled against the sheriff.
Other law enforcers showed up to the interview with Murphy but backed out seconds before. Murphy, with a sigh and look of disappointment, left the group and sat down in a chair under a large television light.
Earlier that day Murphy said he was questioned by SLED agents at the agency’s Pee Dee Region Office in Florence about the packet he delivered to SLED five days before. As soon as Murphy got back to Marlboro County, he walked into the county administrator’s office to hand in his resignation.
“I cried outside. I’m just a kid from McColl that grew up loving Marlboro County. I love the people here. The same people that fed me when I was a child, helped my mom buy Christmas presents for me, had me at their houses, transported me back and forth to sporting events. These are people that cared for me and for the last eight, nine, ten years I’ve been able to return that favor and care for victims that are in need here in Marlboro County,” Murphy said.
With the resignation, Murphy was ending that relationship.
“Knowing that stepping out and doing what I’m doing today is going to cost me that job and that position and put me in a bind in a very tough spot was hard for me, but it was also necessary. And if I’m going to be the man I want my son and my daughter to know me as being, then I had to do this.”
Another member of the sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit, Sgt. Robbie Tryon also resigned the same day. Both men agreed to work through Dec. 17.
The theme of the allegations detailed in the ‘Lemon Laws’ report had to do with cover-ups and abuse of power. The packet detailed cases where the lawmen claimed the sheriff had people charged without the legal authority to do so.