14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone credits his office's Career Criminal Prosecution Team, formed in 2009, with cutting the backlog of pending cases in Beaufort County's General Sessions court:
Jan. 1, 2009: 3,158 cases pending
Jan. 1, 2010: 2,276 cases pending
Jan. 1, 2011: 1,678 cases pending
Jan. 1, 2012: 1,511 cases pending
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The career criminals Dylan Hightower has helped put behind bars watch him every day.
They peer at him from mug shots posted on a bulletin board in the 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office. They've received sentences ranging from 25 years to life.
Hightower, a crime analyst trained by the S.C. Law Enforcement Division, joined the Solicitor's Office about six months ago to help its Career Criminal Prosecution Team go after "the worst of the worst," said solicitor Duffie Stone.
Hightower is charged with proving which detainees are the repeat offenders -- the career criminals -- who commit most of the violent crimes.
He has to do it each day before 8:30 a.m., when bond hearings typically are scheduled for inmates booked overnight at jails in the circuit's five counties: Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton, Colleton and Allendale.
Hightower's training gives him access to SLED resources worth millions of dollars. He uses them to "dig a little deeper" and pass the information to prosecutors, so they can argue for higher bonds or for no bond at all.
And what Hightower finds out can also be used at trial to make the case for harsher sentences, Stone said.
"What I needed was an objective way to determine who is the worst of the worst and, on a real-time basis, at 7 in the morning," Stone said. "These are not the people you want out -- these are hardened criminals."
Hightower is the first SLED-trained crime analyst hired by a state solicitor's office, according to SLED spokeswoman Kathryn Richardson.
Stone credits the career-criminal team and Hightower's work with cutting the backlog of pending cases in General Sessions Court and reducing jail crowding. The goal is to keep the community safer by removing hardened criminals from the streets, he said.
The team's conviction rate is more than 90 percent, Stone estimates.
"Intelligence-led prosecution" wasn't a big part of the solicitor's approach until Hightower was hired in July, Stone said.
The resources he uses are more than just the rap sheets prosecutors traditionally work with. That sheet can be missing vital information; it lists charges and convictions but no details of cases.
Hightower showed his prowess in the case of Terry Dean Swanger of Hardeeville, charged in 2009 with beating his girlfriend to death.
Jasper County sheriff's deputies found the battered and bruised body of Vikki Pope, who had just ended her five-year relationship with Swanger, wrapped in a blanket in the back seat of a car at the couple's home. Swanger was standing in the driveway with a shovel and ran into nearby woods, leading police on a seven-hour manhunt before he was captured.
The forensic pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina who examined Pope's body wasn't sure how she died. Investigators didn't have a murder weapon. Photographs of Swanger's hands taken at the scene showed few marks or bruises consistent with Pope's injuries.
He pulled all incident reports associated with Swanger and found what he called the typical profile of a career criminal, who often commit a variety of offenses. In the past, Swanger had been charged with burglaries, breach of trust and criminal domestic violence.
Hightower tracked down the two women involved in the domestic-violence cases. Both told the same story: Swanger punched, choked and stomped the women once they'd been knocked down.
With Hightower's new information, SLED agents photographed the soles of Swanger's boots, and a pathologist matched the boot prints to patterns of bruises on Pope's body.
Swanger was sentenced to life in prison last month.
Now, his mug shot hangs on Hightower's office wall.
"I can get a better idea of family members or associates," Hightower said of his access to the SLED database. "I can dig a little deeper into that person's past."
CUTTING THE NUMBERS
In 2011, 37 defendants in Beaufort County General Sessions were defined as career criminals and had 162 charges among them -- an average approaching five charges each -- Stone said.
"If you remove that segment of the population, instead of reducing one case, you're reducing five," Stone said.
A 2009 Solicitor's Office analysis of those jailed around the circuit showed that about 60 percent were awaiting their day in court and a majority were career criminals. The court system was clogged as a result.
Since the six-prosecutor team's creation in 2009, there's been a 53 percent reduction in the backlog of pending cases in Beaufort County General Sessions, according to the Solicitor's Office. A new court schedule, also implemented in 2009, has helped speed the process, too, Stone said.
The team's ability to win convictions against career criminals -- and send them to state prison -- has helped reduce the county's jail population.
Since December 2009, the jail has consistently been under its 255-inmate capacity, according to detention center director Phil Foot. Before that, the jail had exceeded its capacity for about four years, hitting highs of more than 400 inmates, Foot said.
"It certainly has cut our numbers," he said.
Along with reducing court backlogs and jail populations, Stone believes the new approach of focusing on career criminals will also make the public safer.
Prosecutors used to spend "too much time focusing on the crime, not enough on the criminal," Stone said.
"The more information we're able to gather and use, the better we're going to do our job, and the safer the community is going to get."
And the more crowded Hightower's wall will become.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.