There was a time when Gangsta Disciples returning to Barnwell County from prison received a disturbing welcome-home gift from fellow street-gang member Joey Barfield: He gave them guns.
Incidentally, Barfield has done a little time himself. In the early 2000s, he was convicted of five counts of burglary and received two, 10-year sentences. So in essence, Gangsta Disciples homecomings entailed a felon rearming other felons.
Outrageous? Perhaps – but not necessarily illegal under South Carolina law.
While federal statutes prohibit any felon from possessing a firearm, state code expressly prohibits only some violent felons from doing so. Further, omissions from the list of crimes considered “violent” might seem odd to the layman. For example, daytime burglaries and some domestic-violence offenses are not included. That’s right. A crime with “violence” in its title is not necessarily considered a violent crime.
As a result, state-level prosecutors can have difficulty securing stiff sentences against habitual offenders, assuming they can bring a case against them at all.
Barfield and his welcome-home gifts exposed this gap between state and federal law, and the problem was not merely academic. Many Gangsta Disciples used these weapons to commit new crimes. And although Barnwell is in South Carolina’s 2nd Judicial Circuit, Gangsta Disciples activity frequently spilled into the neighboring 14th Circuit, particularly Allendale County.
To rid his circuit of these criminal enterprises, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone struck upon an inventive solution: Arrange access to federal courts for one of his most experienced prosecutors, Carra Henderson.
In 2015, Henderson became the first state-level prosecutor in South Carolina to fully embed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. That put at her disposal more robust laws, penalties and investigative tools, such as the federal grand jury. Henderson uses these resources to prosecute career criminals across the 14th Circuit. She remains employed by the Solicitor’s Office but argues her cases in U.S. District Court in Columbia and Charleston, rather than county General Sessions Courts in the 14th Circuit.
The partnership has worked so well that the U.S. Department of Justice has encouraged other Solicitor’s Offices in South Carolina to follow suit, and at least two other circuits now have similar arrangements with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Henderson has earned convictions against dozens of federal defendants since the collaboration began, including Barfield in 2017.
The relationship between the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office and federal prosecutors also led to an ad hoc collaboration that dealt a major blow to street gangs operating in several Lowcountry counties, including Colleton. Career Criminal prosecutor Tameaka Legette worked shoulder-to-shoulder with a Washington, D.C.-based Assistant U.S. Attorney who specializes in gang prosecutions. Along with state and local law-enforcement agencies, and the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, they earned convictions against 17 members of the Wildboys and Cowboys gangs in 2017.
Those gang members were prosecuted under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO. This law treats street gangs for what they are – organized, on-going criminal enterprises.
“What the federal RICO act allows you to do is to take out many of the gang members all at once. That is the only way to dismantle a gang,” Stone said. “If you take a piecemeal approach and go after one at a time, they are replaced by the time they get into bond court.”
The RICO statute is one of powerful tools afforded the Solicitor’s Office partnership through federal partnerships. There are other advantages, not available under South Carolina law. Among them:
- The ability to prosecute several members of a criminal enterprise in a single trial, rather than separately.
- Language that makes it a crime in itself to lie to a federal investigator. The possibility of prosecution for that offense often prompts witnesses and suspects to provide useful information.
- An investigative grand jury that allows law enforcement and prosecutors to keep witness testimony under seal longer, making it possible to make roundup arrests before suspects have a chance to go underground or harm witnesses.;
Another bonus is that the federal system did away with parole in the 1980s. Defendants sentenced to prison must serve their sentence in its entirety. Most are also subject to supervision for a period of years following their release.
“For prosecutors in a state that can deploy an investigative grand jury only under very specific circumstances, this type of partnership is invaluable,” Stone said. “There’s no question the 14th Circuit is safer as a result of this collaboration.”