South Carolina editorial roundup: Friday, Aug. 13, 2021


The (Charleston) Post and Courier

Aug. 8

Boat investigation highlights problems police need to fix

The mysterious murders of Maggie Murdaugh and her son, Paul, put an end to the criminal case against Mr. Murdaugh, who was facing a felony boating under the influence charge in the 2019 death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach. But it didn't put an end to questions about how state and local law enforcement officials handled the investigation of the boating accident.

To the contrary, Paul Murdaugh's death seems to have released a treasure trove of evidence that officials had been able to hide from the public while the case was pending.

Although there are legitimate reasons to temporarily withhold certain types of investigative material that could be used in a criminal trial, the information about the Murdaugh investigation paints a deeply disturbing picture of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office. And in so doing, it once again demonstrates how law enforcement sometimes benefits most from the secrecy, by keeping its missteps out of the public view.

Consider this damning introduction to last month's article by The Post and Courier's Stephen Hobbs and Thad Moore:

"Within hours of the early morning boat crash that killed Mallory Beach, an officer investigating the incident spoke with the missing teen's boyfriend. The man said the boat's driver was Paul Murdaugh, a 19-year-old from a line of prominent lawyers who long held sway over the South Carolina Lowcountry. The officer did not write in his report that Murdaugh was implicated. Instead, he wrote that Beach's boyfriend said he didn't know who was driving. And he told his supervisor he suspected someone else entirely."

The article went on to explain that, "Some evidence was apparently not collected, statements weren't documented in reports, and incomplete information was passed along to supervisors."

For example: Beaufort County deputies, who arrived first at the scene of the accident, did not conduct a sobriety test on the obviously drunk Mr. Murdaugh or any other passengers - the sort of thing police ought to do automatically in an automobile accident; one later told investigators that was the job of the Department of Natural Resources.

But by the time a DNR agent arrived, all but one of the surviving passengers had been taken to the hospital. The agent said he did not attempt to test Mr. Murdaugh's sobriety, but a separate agent, and the lead investigator on the case, said Mr. Murdaugh refused to be tested. Investigators might not have been able to bring charges but for the fact that the hospital staff was so worried about the level of Mr. Murdaugh's intoxication that they conducted a blood test.

The officer who wrote in his report that Ms. Beach's boyfriend said he didn't know who was driving later testified that he didn't know why he put that clearly incorrect information in his report, but a military officer on the scene said he heard Natural Resources agents discussing how prominent and powerful the Murdaugh family was.

The wife of one DNR officer had been employed by the Murdaugh law firm until eight months prior to the crash. One of the Beaufort County deputies who failed to gather evidence at the scene had received a $750,000 settlement in a lawsuit the Murdaughs filed on behalf of his mother and him.

At the very least, the new documents suggest that the Natural Resources Department has not properly prepared its officers to conduct criminal investigations of this type. This is particularly troublesome since the officers involved are part of a special team trained to investigate boating accidents. As ever more people flock to our beaches and rivers and lakes and as boating becomes ever more popular and boaters become ever more reckless, it's ever more important for the agency to make sure its officers are properly trained to investigate deadly accidents.

The documents also suggest that local police give too much deference to the state agency in criminal investigations. Although there are significant differences between boating accidents and traffic accidents, there are some basic principles that apply in both cases - starting with the importance of preserving evidence that might not be available later. That includes conducting field sobriety tests on the driver - or on multiple people if it's not clear who the driver was. DNR needs to make it clear to local police - and sheriffs and police chiefs need to make it clear to their officers - that they should start gathering evidence when they're the first to arrive on the scene.

Those are the easy fixes.

The more difficult one involves the close ties between investigator and investigated. Certainly the Murdaugh family is an outlier: a powerful and even feared family that has cultivated close ties with small-town law enforcement that, whether intended or not, increase the likelihood of favoritism, even if that favoritism is only a matter of giving the benefit of the doubt to a family member.

But there are less extreme examples in every community in our state, and South Carolina needs better policies in place to ensure that potential conflicts of interest are identified immediately and procedures put in place to keep those conflicts from interfering with justice being done.

(Columbia) The State

Aug. 10

Infrastructure bill compromise means more dollars for S.C. roads, bridges

Chances are you've driven on a bumpy, pothole-laden road or rickety bridge and wondered, "Will this ever be fixed?"

Finally, we have hope that some federal dollars are coming to save the day or at the very least save the wear and tear on our cars and trucks.

On Tuesday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham joined 18 other republican senators in support of the Biden administration's $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan. The plan, with a vote of 69-30 in the Senate, now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration.

"The bipartisan infrastructure bill is good for South Carolina," Graham tweeted just after the vote was taken.

He added, "It provides much-needed help for our roads, bridges, ports, and expands broadband internet access. I have always been supportive of infrastructure investment and wish we had passed this years ago."

Now, we know there is no such thing as the perfect piece of legislation, but here we have a welcome example of our elected officials working to reach a compromise that ultimately will benefit the American people.

The infrastructure bill, which is focused on bridge and road repair, electric vehicle charging station expansion and broadband access, would bring nearly $10 billion to South Carolina, according to estimates from the Biden administration.

Nearly $5 billion is designated for improvements to public transportation options across the Palmetto State. Another $4.6 billion would go to highway improvements, and $274 million would go to bridge repairs.

Democrats and Republicans have spent months negotiating the bill as it appears today, with Republicans arguing that earlier versions of the bill set aside funds for what they deemed non-infrastructure-related projects. Democrats pushed back focusing provisions designed to curb climate change and expand access to broadband.

South Carolina's junior Sen. Tim Scott did not join Graham in voting for the measure, explaining in a press release that he supports investment in the country's roads, bridges, ports, broadband, and other infrastructure needs, "But I cannot support more reckless spending on unrelated pet projects that will suffocate our future generations with mountains of debt."

Scott added, "Rather than taking a common sense approach to investing in infrastructure, this bill has been rushed through so Democrats can spend trillions more dollars we don't have on liberal policies we don't need - all amid record inflation. American families cannot afford to foot the bill for this 'spend now, tax later' plan, which is why I voted no."

Graham cited several benefits of the bill for South Carolinians including $4.6 billion in highway funding, the $274 million in bridge replacement and rehabilitation funding, and $70 million to assist in the deployment of electric vehicles and charging stations over the next five years.

He noted that the bill features the provision he co-sponsored, which promotes easier access for South Carolina businesses to view and apply for government procurement contracts.

We welcome Sen. Graham's vote, and we hope our South Carolina representatives in the House join in the effort to bring much-needed money to our state.

Compromise is about making concessions, and we want our elected leaders to recognize that in this case, compromise means that 5.1 million South Carolinians can benefit from better roads, improved transportation and broadband access for all.

The (Greenwood) Index-Journal

Aug. 10

Your freedom, your choice

Yes, we believe in individuals' freedoms and their right to make their own choices.

We also believe in science, experts in the medical field and research that provides us the means to protect our health. Consider the many advances made in the field of health care thanks to research and science.

Polio has very nearly been eradicated from the globe thanks to research and the development of a vaccine. Ponder the many surgical procedures and transplants that can be done today that could only be imagined not so many years ago.

By all means, we need to uphold our individual freedoms above all else. At least, that seems to be a rallying cry among many who oppose face mask mandates and vaccinations in these COVID-19 days.

Applying this line of thinking, let's now look at other areas where our individual rights are quashed on a daily basis and include them in our stance for our liberties:

- No medical professional ought to have to wash his or her hands and arms, wear scrubs and a face covering when performing surgery. Granted, this speaks to your overall health and the health of others, but ...

- No restaurant should have to follow DHEC guidelines or be punished for not doing so. It's their right to operate free and clear of annoying rules and regs. It's your right to choose whether to eat at their establishments. Granted, this speaks to your overall health and the health of others, but ...

- Government should not dictate what speed you should drive on the roads, highways and interstates. Granted, this speaks to your overall health and the health of others, but ...

- Come to think of it, seat belts should be a personal choice, along with whether to text and drive. Granted, this speaks to your overall health and the health of others, but ...

- Government ought not dictate that pharmaceutical companies spell out possible side effects of the drugs we choose to take, nor should food manufacturers be required to provide warnings of potential allergy risks. Granted, this speaks to your overall health and the health of others, but ...

- There should be no warning labels on household cleaners, either. Granted, this speaks to your overall health and the health of others, but ...

- There should be no penalty for a parent or guardian who leaves a loaded weapon within reach of a child and that child or someone else in the household dies or is seriously injured in an accidental shooting. Granted, this speaks to the child's overall well-being and the well-being of others, but ...

Sounds more than a tad ridiculous, right?

But is it?

Consider what our own state's governor, Henry McMaster, said Monday morning. He acknowledged that face coverings can prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus to others, but he doesn't want to mandate the wearing of face masks in public schools - despite that more and more younger people and school-aged children are contracting the virus that, in turn, they might pass on to others.

He acknowledged that the vaccine is a good thing, even noting that in the event a person does get the virus, the effects are far less serious for those who are vaccinated.

All good, but all a matter of individual or parental choice. So a parent making the choice not to make a child wear a face mask at school is OK, even if it might mean the child unknowingly is spreading the virus to classmates and teachers, who in turn might spread it to others. Especially if that child is not yet eligible to receive a vaccination.

And is that list any more ridiculous than, say, the overflowing line of cars with people wanting a COVID-19 test versus the extremely short line - maybe four or five - of cars with people wanting to get vaccinated?

Granted, a vaccinated person could wind up with the virus and need to be tested. Granted, some people have legitimate reasons beyond freedom of choice to bypass the vaccine. However, we'd be willing to bet that if more people got vaccinated when it was available, the line for testing would have been far shorter.

But when did Americans' individual freedoms and liberties negate the health and well-being of the rest of the citizenry? When did we come to the conclusion that even though masks do lower a health risk, we ought not mandate they be worn in public schools?