Hit and run victims say court let them down by finding man incompetent to stand trial

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - A South Carolina Highway Patrol report says an Horry County man was under the influence when he drove his truck into a couple's car, then he walked away from the crash before police arrived. But that man is not going to jail, he's not facing charges for second offense DUI or hit and run. There is no part of South Carolina's legal system holding him in custody or keeping tabs on him because he was found incompetent to stand trial, despite the fact he doesn't fit the requirements for involuntary commitment.

Janet Hancin was driving the car, her husband Bob Nixon was in the passenger seat on July 3, 2015.

It would be nearly a year before Judge Steven John would sign an order for a competency to stand trial evaluation.

The request came from Brandon Royals' lawyer, saying Royals "may lack the competency to understand the criminal proceedings or to assist with the defense." It said he "suffered serious medical traumas" that limit "his ability to communicate."

Assistant Solicitor Josh Holford consented.

"You know, I'm not a doctor, but you still have a crime that's alleged to have occurred," Holford said. "He still hit someone, caused serious injuries and leaves the scene, reasons for doing that are disputed. It's going to end up being a plea at that point after that fact because the facts are pretty strong on our side because there's substantial injury."

There wouldn't be a chance to make that plea deal, or have a trial or even another hearing in criminal court. The evaluators said Royals is not competent and not likely to become competent. That meant it was up to the judge to make a ruling.

An order from September 2016 ended the criminal case.

"I don't think I've ever seen a judge go against a medical doctor's opinion because they rely on the opinions as well," Holford said. "At that point I know I can't prosecute the case."

The case was sent to Probate Court for an involuntary commitment hearing, but Royals wasn't committed with the state's Department of Disability and Special Needs because, according to a letter from the solicitor's office to the victims, Royals "did not meet their statutory requirements for admission."

The letter said, "these warrants are being dismissed."

"It's just everything is dismissed," Hancin said. "I can't dismiss it in my life."

"We were let down," Nixon said, "Not a chance to speak, nothing. The court system threw us right under the bus."

"I hesitate to use absolutes," Holford said, "but I have never seen a case where we've transferred to Probate Court for an involuntary commitment and they say we can't do anything with him."

That's what happened in this case.

"He did not fall within the mental health parameters for his disability and the Department of Disability and Special Needs says, well, he doesn't fall within our parameters either," Holford said.

Another letter from the solicitor's office from June explains Royals' "license is suspended and he's disqualified from driving."

"If he's on the road and he's stopped," Holford said, "he's arrested for driving under suspension. Whether he's competent to stand that trial, probably not."

WMBF News did reach out to Royals by phone. He said he didn't remember the wreck happening or where he was going that day. He said effects from a stroke keep him from remembering a lot of things. Horry County records show Royals paid taxes on a car in February, but he said he sold that car. Royals said he hasn't driven since the wreck, but is going to driving school for six months to get his license back. He said he lives with his mother and doesn't drink.

When asked what he would say to the victims of the crash he said, "They were pretty pissed off at me, I don't know what I'd say to them now."

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