Charles Williams, University of South Carolina trustee who pleaded guilty to killing federally protected hawks, is appealing his sentence, claiming the judge gave him an excessive fine of $75,000 because she is a “bird lover.”
Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges should have disqualified herself before passing sentence in June because she is a self-described “nature lover” who is overly fond of birds, and her impartiality in the matter “might reasonably be questioned,” wrote Williams’ lawyers in an appeal motion.
At that June 6 hearing, Williams, 66, an Orangeburg lawyer, pleaded guilty to trapping and killing seven hawks in violation of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects some 800 birds. He and three employees were charged with killing some 30 hawks; prosecutors dropped other charges against the four.
Evidence in the misdemeanor case showed Williams masterminded a scheme at his Orangeburg plantation to trap and kill hawks that were preying on quails on his property. Plantation owners often regard hawks as pests that destroy quail, competing with the humans, who hunt quail.
“These birds (hawks) were killed in a very inhumane way, often allowed to sit in the cages for days while they suffered,” assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Klumb told Hodges at the hearing.
Klumb asked Hodges to levy a $105,000 fine to send “a strong message” to people like Williams, who carry out systematic programs to trap and kill hawks.
Harboring a love of nature should never disqualify a jurist from hearing a case involving wildlife or the environment.”
Prosecutor’s brief supporting Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges
Instead of a $105,000 fine, Hodges gave Williams the $75,000 fine, sentenced him to 50 hours of community service at an avian wildlife center and put him on a one-year hunting ban.
Two of Williams’ employees who pleaded guilty were given light sentences because, Klumb said, “It was (Williams’) program ... It went on for years.”
The government gathered evidence in the case by planting hidden video cameras on Williams’ property.
In his appeal papers, Williams cites a statement Hodges made in open court in which she explained how, while a student at the S.C. Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics, she first saw a red-tail hawk.
“I took an ornithology class with Dr. Bill Alexander, a noted ornithologist and bird photographer,” Hodges said. “His class opened my eyes to a love of birds and a love of nature, and really began to teach me about the circle of life.”
However, Hodges went on to say, “my role as a judge is different than my role as a nature lover.”
“What we do as judges is not judge character, we don’t judge people, but we judge specific offenses, and we try to render a judgment that is appropriate in cases on an individual basis,” she said.
A sentence should not only deter the offender from repeating the crime, but also should “provide general deterrence to others for similar offenses,” she said.
Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges has “a high degree of favoritism” towards red tail hawks.
Charles Williams’ brief asking for lower fine
In their appeal, Williams’ lawyers argued Hodges’ statements about her love of birds and nature “clearly show a high degree of favoritism to these birds (red tail hawk) and consequently a high degree of antagonism to conduct such as was at issue ...,” Williams’ brief said.
It is not unusual for state or federal judges to explain their sentences.
In April 2015, for example, U.S. Judge Terry Wooten told courtroom spectators why he was giving former Lexington County Sheriff Jimmy Metts prison when Metts and his attorneys had asked for probation.
“Mr. Metts was the law. He was sheriff. His conduct did not promote respect for the law,” Wooten said. “He violated the public’s trust.”
In an opposing brief in Williams’ case, the U.S. Attorney’s office argued, “Harboring a love of nature should never disqualify a jurist from hearing a case involving wildlife or the environment.
“A defendant in such cases is not entitled to a judge who doesn’t care about the natural world any more than a defendant in any criminal case is entitled to a judge who doesn’t care about victims,” the government’s brief said.
Williams’ brief cited numerous cases where wildlife violators were given lighter fines than Williams.
The “fine (against Williams) imposed here is simply too high by comparison,” Williams’ brief argued.
In its reply, the government cited a South Carolina federal hawk killing case in which, as part of a plea deal, the offender paid $250,000 to Lowcountry animal charities. In Williams’ case, his $75,000 fine for killing the same number of birds will go to the U.S. Department of Interior and be used for wildlife habitat.
Williams’ lawyers, Gedney Howe of Charleston and state Sen. Brad Hutto, also argued the red tail hawk is “neither rare, nor endangered and numbers in the millions.”
But Jim Elliott, executive director of South Carolina’s Avian Conservation Center, which includes the Center for Birds of Prey, said although hawks are numerous, they are part of a fragile global system of wildlife hunters and predators.
“We can’t afford to dismiss any part of the system,” Elliott said Tuesday. “There are millions of fish in the ocean, too, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be laws to protect them. None of it is infinite.”
Judge Michelle Childs will handle the appeal. No date has been set for a hearing. Howe, Hodges and the U.S. Attorney’s office declined comment.