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Beaufort County Deputy Solicitor Duffie Stone said he feels safer now that his office has moved from the Arthur Horne Building to the Beaufort County Courthouse, especially because there is a metal detector, security officers and other safety measures between his staff and defendants.'
"Suspects in a murder that had just taken place and who had not been arrested just walked right on in," Stone said of the old office.'
However, for the Solicitor's Office to move into the courthouse, the Magistrate's Office had to move out in July -- to a different part of the Arthur Horne Building, where there isn't a security officer to personally screen each person who enters.'
"It's not as secure as it needs to be," Magistrate Darlene Smith said.'
Deciding which offices occupy the limited courthouse space is one of the main concerns of a committee discussing courthouse security in Beaufort County, said committee co-chairmain Sheriff P.J. Tanner.'
The committee formed under the order of the S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, which required each county to evaluate its courthouse security in the wake of the shooting death of a judge in Atlanta earlier this year.'
Tanner said the committee has met twice and completed a checklist that was sent to the Supreme Court. The first phase looks only at security for the main courthouse, located in the government center.'
However, Tanner said the committee plans to go above and beyond the requirements of the state and evaluate the security of all the county's judicial buildings.'
Smith said the new Magistrate's Office has some additional security the office in the courthouse didn't provide, such as the keypads on doors to office spaces and partitions between the staff and public.'
Smith is concerned, though, about the fact that inmates now must be transported from jail to court across the open courtyard of the government center instead of through the tunnels inside the courthouse.'
"There's nothing but a deputy standing between him and the door," she said.'
Smith said Magistrate's Court sees everything from traffic tickets to civil cases to criminal domestic violence, which are ripe with the potential for volatile situations.'
For this reason, Tanner said he recommends eventually moving the Magistrate's Office back into the courthouse and moving Probate Court out, maybe even into the vacant Federal Courthouse on Bay Street.'
Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith, who makes the final decision of who's in and who's out of the courthouse, said she wouldn't comment on the ideas until further along in the process.'
Tanner said the key to providing a more secure courthouse is consolidating as many of the judicial services as possible in one place. In northern Beaufort County, that is the courthouse.'
"The environment itself is secure," he said. '
"We don't want to add on."'
A few changes could be made to better secure the courthouse, Tanner said. He suggested working on lighting and parking lot issues and removing some of the shrubbery that surrounds the building.'
The courtrooms need to be more secure on the inside, too, Tanner said. In September one inmate, who was just convicted on an escape charge, tried to flee the courtroom. He was caught outside the courtroom by sheriff's deputies who work courthouse security, but Tanner said people on trial who are currently inmates should be restrained.'
"When you relax the system, then you create opportunity," he said. "The jury needs to feel safe."'
To avoid any bias shackles could create during a trial, Tanner suggested investing in affordable restraints that can't be seen by the jury, such as leg braces that are hidden underneath pants.'
The most expensive part of the new security plan would be new technology, such as a new camera system and a better electronic key system that would ensure only authorized people had access to the courthouse other than through the front door, Tanner said.'
The biggest obstacle to completing whatever plan the committee agrees on will be funding, Tanner said. If the county is unable to provide all the money, he said he would try applying for state grants available for courthouse security.