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New prosecutor for Chester, Lancaster faces daunting task

Randy Newman has told his family he might not be home much for weeks, even months, after 2 p.m. Wednesday. That’s when the 37-year-old – with four years’ experience as a prosecutor of mainly lesser felonies – takes over the responsibility for prosecution of dozens of pending murder cases and thousands of other felonies in Chester and Lancaster counties.

Newman, a Republican who has never held elected office before and has never tried a murder case, was elected solicitor of the Sixth Judicial Circuit in November, defeating Democrat William Frick, a public defender and former prosecutor.

Newman’s campaign focused on essentially one issue – the Sixth Circuit courts are broken, and he vowed to fix them. But now he has on his desk all those murder cases, so many dead that Chester and Lancaster are often the source of state and national concern for public safety.

Newman’s office and Lancaster’s courts are in a fairly new $30 million courthouse, built because a criminal so brazen torched the old one in an attempt to delay his trial and stay out of prison.

The Sixth Circuit, which also includes Fairfield County, has South Carolina’s worst backlog of cases, the worst record of moving cases in a timely manner. The problem is so severe that cops have been screaming publicly about repeat offenders being out on the streets because trials don’t happen for years. Some murder cases that are five, seven, even more than 10 years old have never seen a courtroom.

The new solicitor sounds undaunted.

“I told my family that the only way to jump in is feet first,” Newman said. “That means doing whatever it takes to handle all these cases.”

Newman takes over for Doug Barfield, a Democrat elected in 2006 and 2010, who is retiring after a total of 30 years as a prosecutor. Before Barfield, longtime solicitor John Justice – a Democrat who died in 2006 after 28 years unopposed – prosecuted cases in the mainly rural district that has big-city problems in Chester and Lancaster just like much larger Charlotte or Rock Hill.

The tide of drugs, guns and killings overwhelmed Barfield and Justice, both of whom handled almost all murder cases and most serious felonies personally.

Those tough and successful prosecutors sent dozens of killers to prison, but thousands of other cases went unhandled or were handled by overburdened assistant solicitors as the drug and gun epidemics prompted thousands of new crimes – from domestic violence to murder, and everything in between. Since 2010, crime in Chester and Lancaster counties has become so severe that some killings have become national news.

Chester and Lancaster turned from being textile giants with jobs for all willing to show up, to places with few jobs and even less hope.

Newman plans a different approach than his predecessors. He will spread the prosecution of violent crimes among all seven prosecutors, including himself. He also hopes to hire two more prosecutors this year, if he can secure state and federal grant money aimed at communities with crime problems.

“We have too much here for it to be a one-man show on the murders,” Newman said. “We have way too many for any one person to handle them. The approach now will be all of us together to handle these crimes. The only way is a team approach.”

The public, outraged over the appearance of political indifference to violence, has demanded safer streets. In Chester County, tens of thousands of dollars of donations have poured in to help pay for police equipment to help protect cops against the violence that has spiked dramatically in Chester and Lancaster – especially crimes involving guns, drugs, gangs and killings.

That violence came to a very public head in November, when Chester City Councilman Odell Williams was gunned down in a drive-by shooting, allegedly by gang members.

But it dates back at least to 2008, when a convicted felon trying to avoid prosecution partially burned down the Historic Lancaster County Courthouse and prosecutors’ offices. That year, Lancaster set crime rate records, and bodies piled up.

But convictions did not pile up nearly as fast, even when there were arrests.

Gangs members have put bounties on the heads of police, and a Lancaster deputy was shot three years ago trying to thwart a robbery of a packed restaurant.

More than 5,000 cases are pending in the Sixth Circuit. The courts in Chester and Lancaster – even when moving 70 or 80 cases in the one week of court that Lancaster or Chester has each month – continue to fall behind as anywhere from 100 to 150 indictments are handed down in the counties each month.

The problem became so severe that last year, Circuit Court Judge Brian Gibbons, the only resident judge in the Sixth Circuit, took over partial control of the docket – which historically rested in the hands of prosecutors – in a move aimed at better efficiency.

Newman said he and his assistant prosecutors will oppose all bond requests in murder cases. Barfield did the same, but dozens of trials were never scheduled, forcing judges to free accused killers on bond. Because many of the cases never went to trial, the accused went free. In several cases, alleged killers out on bond were charged with drug crimes, even more murders.

“I am going to look at every murder case that we have pending,” Newman said. “Honestly, some are so old, I have never seen or read a single thing on them. But we have to decide what to do, then do it.”

Newman also plans more straight talk with frustrated police. He will demand good investigations, offering faster trials and a tough stance on criminals in return.

For guidance, he has looked to York County’s success in getting rid of the backlog.

In 1992, Tommy Pope was an unproven, young lawyer elected solicitor for the 16th Circuit, which includes York and Union counties. York County had the worst backlog in the state, with more than 10,000 pending cases. Pope and his prosecutors culled the cases in a few years, and by the late 1990s, York County had the state’s smallest backlog and best record of moving cases.

Solicitor Kevin Brackett, elected to succeed Pope in 2008, has kept that record intact.

Newman has asked both Brackett and Pope – now a private practice lawyer and state representative planning a run for governor in 2018 – for help in instituting similar reforms.

Crime and criminals do not stop at county lines, Brackett said, and violence in neighboring Lancaster and Chester counties affects the quality of life in York County.

“We will help any way that my office can,” Brackett said. “Our office here has proven repeatedly that we can manage a docket efficiently and put public safety first. This is a quality of life issue for all people in this area. Randy has my full support.”

Sixth Circuit prosecutors in the circuit also say that they will be more accessible in the new age of Internet and social media, by publishing court dockets online and creating a website for the office.

Technology and good intentions aside, Newman on Wednesday will take the oath of office at the Lancaster County Courthouse. On Thursday, he will head to the state Supreme Court to be sworn in by Chief Justice Jean Toal.

He will return on Friday to a mountain of old killings, drug cases and gang problems that threaten the safety of not just cops, but the public. He will be responsible for three counties with a combined population of about 150,000 people.

“It is daunting; it is huge,” Newman said. “I know it; we all know it. The problem is right in front of us. We can’t hide from it. We won’t.”