U.S. Attorney in SC ramping up efforts to hold violent offenders accountable for gun crimes

U.S. Attorney Corey Ellis speaks during an interview in Columbia on May 26, 2022.)(
U.S. Attorney Corey Ellis speaks during an interview in Columbia on May 26, 2022.)((Jeff Diamond)
Published: May. 26, 2022 at 7:38 PM EDT|Updated: May. 26, 2022 at 10:25 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina’s top federal prosecutor says gun violence in the state is skyrocketing to troubling heights.

In 2020, the most recent year of complete data, there were 571 murders across the state, an all-time high since that number was first tracked and 50% higher than it was just five years before. Non-fatal shootings have risen as well, according to U.S. Attorney Corey Ellis.

Now Ellis is ramping up his approach to targeting the people committing these violent crimes.

The federal government has jurisdiction over certain crimes, allowing U.S. Attorneys to choose to prosecute these crimes at the federal level. Under a new strategy announced this week, Ellis’ office is putting more people on that list to qualify for federal prosecution to hold more violent offenders accountable for their crimes.

“When you look at the statistical trends here in South Carolina, they’re very troubling,” Ellis said.

Behind all of those statistics are South Carolinians victimized by gun violence.

In April, children playing baseball at a field in North Charleston had to duck and cover as shots rang out nearby.

Days before that, nine people were shot and more injured while spending an afternoon at the Columbiana Centre mall in Columbia.

Just this past weekend, four teenagers were shot and killed within hours of each other in Newberry County.

Ellis said he worries people are going to become numb to incidents like those because they are happening more than ever in South Carolina.

“We feel like last year was bad, and the next year can’t be worse, and then here we go, and it’s worse yet,” Ellis said.

In the past, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina has prioritized prosecuting guns crimes at the federal level when the defendant had at least two violent crimes or serious drug offenses on their record.

But Ellis said they have realized these criteria do not apply to many of the state’s most violent offenders.

“The crime has evolved, and it’s evolved such that we have younger and younger individuals who are our trigger-pullers,” he said.

Now his office is focusing on additional offenders, including those who have recent violent felony or domestic violence convictions; have recently been released from custody or were on state bond for a violent crime; have serious drug convictions; have ties to gang activity; or who are engaged in trafficking firearms.

Ellis said these are the crimes they see repeatedly connected to gun violence in South Carolina.

“Our whole design here is to hold those accountable who are most responsible,” he said.

Federal prosecution for violent crimes is likely to mean a person would stay in custody until their case is done, according to the U.S. Attorney, and if they are sentenced to prison in the federal system, in many cases, they would be moved to another state away from their home community to serve their time.

“We hope that by raising the level of awareness, that we not only deter those who would be trigger-pullers, as we call them, but that we wind up disrupting them through these efforts,” he said.

As part of this new strategy, Ellis is meeting with state and local law enforcement in different parts of South Carolina in the coming weeks.

He said those agencies have welcomed these increased efforts, saying law enforcement officers are frustrated and disconcerted by the rising gun violence in their communities.

Ellis said this strategy came at the directive of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who tasked each of the 90-plus federal districts in the country with finding an approach specific to their district to reduce gun violence.

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