In the courtroom with the Honorable Jennifer Wilson, Myrtle Beach Municipal Court’s Chief Judge
For nearly the past 20 years, Jennifer P. Wilson has presided as Chief Judge of the Municipal Court of Myrtle Beach, hearing and ruling on countless thousands of cases ranging from simple speeding tickets to white collar crimes to criminal sexual assaults and nearly every other kind of crime short of capital offenses.
Both the first woman and first African-American to hold this office, Judge Wilson has been reappointed for four consecutive terms and hopes to be reappointed to her fifth term in October. “I love my job,” she says, “and I’m good at it.”<>Confident, respected, well liked, dedicated to the law and to those she serves, Judge Wilson says she’s “heard it all, seen it all.”
For my role as enthusiastic observer in the “A Day in The Life” series, I was recently able to shadow Judge Wilson to better understand just how a Chief Judge might spend a typical day in Myrtle Beach’s busiest courtrooms. I found out that there’s no such thing as “typical,” and that she regularly puts in long hours, as was the case on a recent Thursday.
I meet Judge Wilson just outside of a small, camera-equipped courtroom at the Ted Collins Law Enforcement Center on Oak Street in Myrtle Beach. Dressed smartly in her robes, she has just left her chambers and is ready for the morning video bonding session. She introduces me to her Protective Security Unit, Officers Richard Anderson and Greg Finkel. Both men are dressed in black, both are charged with her safety in the courtroom and as she travels, and both assist where needed, including in the role of bailiff. But don’t call them bailiffs. “They are so much more than that,” laughs Judge Wilson. “I knew bailiffs in other courtrooms who were sleepy old men, and who said ‘all rise,’ but that was about it. My guys mean business.”
“We are the first court in South Carolina, at the summary magistrate level, to have a security detail and to have installed metal detectors,” she explains. “Rich and Greg have confiscated all kinds of weapons and drugs from people trying to enter the courtroom. You wouldn’t believe it. They’re very protective of me and I just love them.”
Some 50 seats are mostly empty except for a handful of victims waiting to see if the accused will or will not be granted bond (bail). “All rise!” Judge Wilson appears through a door next to her bench, greets her clerk sitting beside her, a few police officers, and the rest of us seated in her courtroom. It is clearly her courtroom. She commands a no-nonsense, dignified, calm and serious presence that’s impossible to ignore. Though she’s quick to smile and laugh, she told me later, “I don’t play.”
A large closed circuit TV screen shows a holding cell where the first group of defendants arrives in orange prison garb, shackled at their feet and handcuffed at their wrists. These men and women, ranging from their early 20s into their 70s, have been in jail overnight, or maybe a day or so, awaiting this bond hearing. They will be offered either a “courtesy” release before their court date, a judicial bond requiring payment, or, in some cases, no bond and no release from incarceration.
“You are all presumed innocent until and unless the City of Myrtle Beach proves beyond a reasonable doubt that you are not.” Judge Wilson repeats this mantra several times, especially whenever a defendant starts to plead their case too vehemently. “You will have your opportunity to defend yourself,” she reminds them, “but right now, today, we’re only interested in your bond.” She takes time to listen, but is quick to stop the process from derailing.
Within the first group of 12 defendants the charges include domestic violence, loitering with intent to traffic drugs, simple possession of marijuana, public intoxication, trespassing, disorderly conduct, D.U.I. and, the most serious of the offenses, criminal sexual contact with a minor. The defendants with the less weighty charges are free to go; their day in court is a month or so away and Judge Wilson is likely to see them again at their hearings. Those with more significant charges are offered bonds of $500 up to tens of thousands of dollars. The defendant with the most serious charge that morning is denied bond, something he can’t quite comprehend. When Judge Wilson reads his list of priors and reminds him that he is a fugitive from justice from another state, he sits quietly.
The domestic violence case has two codefendants, a young man and young woman who have both been to court before. “I thought you all were supposed to break up,” says Judge Wilson in a motherly tone, reviewing their case notes. “Yes, ma’am,” confesses the man. His codefendant remains silent. “But she begged me to come back,” he adds. The woman doesn’t dispute his claim. The judge looks straight into the camera on her desk and straight into the souls of the dysfunctional couple. “I told you that unless you got your acts together, you’d end up back here,” she says with a shake of her head. “You need counseling.” She again looks at her notes. “The condition of your bond is that you have no contact with each other. No calling, no texting, no Facebooking, nothing. Do you understand?” Humbled, in shackles standing at a microphone in front of a video camera several rooms away, they answer in unison with, “yes, ma’am.”
The next defendant, a man in his 60s, has been charged with 12 counts of fraud; he’d written checks on his elderly mother’s checking account. He begins to cry. Judge Wilson listens to his plea and the myriad reasons why he is not guilty. She sets bail and dismisses him with a pending court date. The judge looks at her clerk and says quietly, “His crocodile tears won’t work on me.”
When Judge Wilson speaks to a homeless man who’s been charged with trespassing and public intoxication, her countenance subtly changes. A repeat offender, she talks to him at length about treatment options, asking him why he didn’t go to treatment and the shelter when she had set it up for him a week earlier. He doesn’t have an answer. He will stay in jail for another 30 days, a de facto shelter when there are no other options. The judge and her security team spent time in the woods a day earlier looking for him when he hadn’t shown up for treatment.
After one more group of defendants has been seen and processed, we move to the judge’s chambers, a large office adjacent to the courtrooms. “We might have 50 or 60 bond hearings every day in the summer,” she says. “It can get kind of crazy.” She removes her judicial robe and relaxes while she checks email, any missed calls and miscellaneous texts. As a department head, she meets with the City Manager and other department heads on Mondays. She has weekends off, except for one. “The only weekend I work is [Atlantic Beach] Bike Fest,” she says, “but we may not need to this year. Last year was quiet. In past years we’ve opened 24/7 for four days surrounding that busiest weekend.”
Judge Wilson manages a staff of 17, including three part-time judges, clerks and others. Divorced with two college-age children, she is a self-described “Lowcountry girl,” born in Charleston, raised in Walterboro and living here in Horry County since 1980. As a bright, young, straight-A student living in a 1960s small town in rural South Carolina, she found herself knee-deep in segregation and the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.
“Growing up one of six children, in complete segregation, I knew when I was six or seven years old I wanted to be a trial lawyer. Perry Mason’s [TV] shows had a huge impact on my earliest decisions. As a child, I remember not having the freedom to go where I wanted to go and having to sit in separate waiting rooms and upstairs at the movie theater. As a very young child, I remember having to visit the dentist and not being able to use the front door. We had to go around back, through the brush, to get inside. I remember the brush scratched my face. I just didn’t understand, and asked my parents, ‘Why?’ It just ate me up inside, and they’d say, ‘That’s just the way it is.’ The KKK ran through our town on horseback.” This sense that basic human dignity and fairness was denied her, her family and virtually every other black American in the 1960s, inevitably lead to her choice of careers.
After graduating from Walterboro High School, she attended Spelman College and completed a B.A. in Political Science. Then she attended Rutgers Law School, where she received her Juris Doctor. In 1981, she was admitted to the South Carolina Bar and went straight to work in the legal system. Over the next two decades, Judge Wilson would hold a variety of public and private positions in Horry County—as a law clerk, an attorney, a public defender and a solicitor—before accepting the position she holds today, Chief Judge of the Myrtle Beach Municipal Court.
I follow the judge and her security team to New Directions, a non-profit facility offering case management, shelter, basic necessities, job training and help with transitioning the homeless back into society when possible. In addition to the work of New Directions, the facility is now home to homeless court, something new and very near and dear to Judge Wilson’s heart.
“This will be the third homeless court in the state,” says Judge Wilson. “We will meet once a month—twice a month to start—in a room that also serves as the dining hall. It’s a less threatening environment and has been working really well in other cities. The first homeless court started in San Diego 30 years ago. In South Carolina, we have them in Columbia and Charleston.” And now, thanks to the City Council who first presented the idea, we have one in Myrtle Beach.
“The idea is to address the underlying causes of homelessness,” says Judge Wilson. “I go to these tent cities in the woods and talk to them and try to get them in to the shelters, but they don’t always go—we can’t force them.” But they can be and are sometimes arrested. “If they have pending charges, I will work with them to keep them out of jail if they’ll consent to residential treatment. I can help them clean up their records. It’s hard to get a job with a criminal record; that’s the purpose of homeless court. It’s a win-win for the community and for the homeless. I’m very excited with the prospects, and it’s become a passion for me.”
After leaving New Directions, we make our way to lunch at Dagwood’s Deli in Myrtle Beach and have time to discuss a variety of topics, including an upcoming trip with friends to Mexico, the judge’s love of live music (especially the R&B dance band Tru Sol) and her long-range plans. “I am really blessed,” she says. “This is a wonderful and fulfilling job.” We circle back around to her Lowcountry roots and I ask about her parents. “My mom passed away at 53, one month after I passed the Bar; she was very proud. My daddy, he’s 94, is living with my twin sister in Greenville and he’s doing pretty well. He was a Navy man, and a chef. He never missed a day of work in his life. My mom taught piano lessons when I was growing up.”
I ask the judge how she keeps from getting depressed about the state of the human condition. I was still feeling a little ill after seeing the never-ending river of destitute, miserable, sad and angry people, just like she’s seen day in, day out for almost 20 years. “Well, I don’t take it home,” she says between bites of her sandwich. “I’ve heard it all, seen it all, nothing surprises me. I try to be fair and compassionate, but I’m not a bleeding heart. I have to apply the law. I’m not hardened, either. There can be mitigating circumstances and I strive to strike a balance.”
Back in chambers, Judge Wilson tends to administrative duties and prepares for night court, held in the large multi-use courtroom. “Thursdays are my longest days,” she says, resigned to the task ahead with a still unknown number of cases on the docket and another round of video bonding. Around her, unseen, an army of clerks and police officers prepare for court.
Officer Finkel announces the “All rise,” and Judge Wilson enters the courtroom. She tells me later, laughing, “Greg won’t let Rich say the ‘All rise.’ He has to be the one to do it.”
Some 60 to 70 men and women of all ages and races have made their way into the courtroom. Rich and Greg tell me to sit in the jury box for a better view and better audio, and I comply; you don’t argue with The Men in Black. Two jailers escort four inmates in shackles, and they end up sitting next to me. I’m not worried, but it is awkward. I’m free to go when I please; they’re not.
A horde of uniformed Myrtle Beach police officers call out names and one by one they cut deals with speeders and those with other traffic infractions. Judge Wilson has taken her rightful place with dutiful clerks on either side. All of the inmates in my row receive some sort of continuance and are escorted out. Soon the crowd has whittled down to half its original number, and soon after that only a handful of the accused and officers are left. Judge Wilson hears pleas of guilty or not guilty at night court, moving the legal process forward, carrying a serious weight and responsibility to get it right.
With a dozen or more cases still pending, I get the judge’s attention and thank her for her time and for a fascinating day. Watching the wheels of justice turn, up close and personal, was an eye-opening experience. Knowing that there are dedicated men and women who take their serious jobs seriously helps me, and should help us all, sleep a little more soundly.