Walt Wilkins, 13th Circuit Solicitor and former U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, is a “young gun.”
He does not shoot from the hip. He’s thoughtful, values fairness and looks issues over from all sides. He doesn’t tally up wins and losses. Instead, he focuses on how justice is meted out. Here’s his view of law and order, with a hefty dose of realism.
Running the Solicitor’s office must keep you out of the courtroom. How do you feel about that?
I’ve been in the prosecution business since 2005. I’ve chased drug dealers around the world. Loved it, had a great time. Then I became U.S. Attorney and was more of a paper pusher, a manager and a policy setter. I crunch numbers, understand problems and set policies so that our criminal justice system in general can be perceived as functioning fairly, with fairness, justice and equality. .. I get to try one or two cases a year (that) are high profile, complicated cases, with expert witnesses and complex evidence that need my attention.
How has crime in Greenville changed – or is continuing to change?
Organized crime has gotten much more sophisticated. We have gangs that have realized that if they point a gun at you and steal your wallet, they’re going to jail for 15 years to life, but if they socially engineer you, steal your identity, take your credit cards and Social Security number, they can steal a lot more money and risk a lot less time. Individuals who historically would have been engaged in violent crimes are now turning to white collar crime.
Cybercrime, computer crime, and identity theft are absolutely rampant.
Are we getting more serious about fighting cybercrime?
We’re fighting a war. From an international perspective, the conversation is starting. But are we prepared here in Greenville County? Absolutely not. Are we prepared in South Carolina? Probably not. Our agencies are wide open. We are getting better. But it can be costly and the government is having a tough time focusing on the problem with adequate resources. We’ve got to fix roads, we‘ve got potholes, and nobody wants to talk about cybersecurity. We get mad about it when it happens and then we forget about it. Federal government does a little bit better job, but the state of South Carolina has a ways to go.
Will body cams, now mandated for law enforcement statewide, change much? [This interview was conducted before the death of Officer Allen Jacobs].
The body cams have a lot of positive qualities, and I believe they will protect the police officers as much as they will protect potential victims of excessive force. I’ve reviewed hundreds and hundreds of cases of potential excessive force and maybe 1-2 percent are prosecutable. Ninety- eight to 99 percent of all police officers who engage in force against a person are within their legal rights.
What about the role of video in the courtroom?
The reason for body cams is that officers are not trusted in the courtroom any more. Back in the ‘80s if a law enforcement officer said something, people believed it. A couple of bad apples along the way, a scandal here and there, have now created this sense that cops are dirty. In my experience, I don’t believe that is even remotely true. So now the body cams will actually show us what is going on.
[Note: Of the hundreds of cases involving police using force that Wilkins has reviewed, he said he’s prosecuted 12 police officers.]
What are you most proud of in your tenure so far?
I try to exude transparency and communication with the public that I serve, to let the public know everything that I am doing. I shouldn’t be doing anything, cutting any deals unless I’m willing to stand up and justify it. Giving a sense of fairness, justice and openness with every case – that’s what every prosecutor’s office should be about.
What is the job you haven’t done yet?
I haven’t done it yet, and it is going to require courage, strength and leadership from me. But I am going to revamp the way we handle (the 800 to 1,000) minor drug possession cases we deal with each year. We have got to get to the root of the problem with counseling, drug rehab, medical care and law enforcement all working together. I want to get rid of drug addicts and the crimes they commit. Everyone is on drugs; about 80 percent of the cases we see have a drug nexus.
My biggest regret is not taking this on yet, because people are dying right and left and we are going to be like Vermont and New Hampshire [where 25 percent of population is on heroin] soon. But I’m going to do it, and I’m going to sell it because the war on drugs is going to require it.