Originally created 11/08/97

Judge's dismissal of DUI charges sparks outrage



SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- When a magistrate freed the man charged with drunken driving in Brandy Ann Bragg's death, it so upset Bragg's cousin that she dragged the crushed remains of the woman's car to the courthouse steps in protest.

Spartanburg County Magistrate Edward Overcash dismissed DUI charges against Robert Dean Whitt when a state trooper was late to court Wednesday.

Overcash, attending a magistrate's conference Friday in Columbia, would not comment. He said at the hearing he only wanted to be fair to Whitt.

Bragg's cousin Denise Putman and others want a state investigation into Overcash's decision.

"If that judge came out here right now, I'd tell him to look at what this man did to her," Putman said Thursday after dragging the crushed wreck to the courthouse.

Harold Watson, executive director of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving state chapter, said the state Commission on Judicial Conduct should investigate.

"The decision by Magistrate Overcash shows a callous disregard for victims and the seriousness of drunk driving," Watson said.

"While the Highway Patrol should have been at the hearing on time, a decision to dismiss felony DUI charges was not the time to make a point," he said.

The last time Overcash let a felony DUI suspect walk because of a trooper's tardiness, the man fled to Mexico. Armando Lopez never has been brought to trial and a warrant remains for his arrest.

Whitt, 36, was charged in September with driving drunk after allegedly running his truck into Bragg's car, killing the 22-year-old woman instantly. He has three prior DUI convictions, but state law allowed him to get a new driver's license in 1995.

Deputy Solicitor Anthony Mabry says he has a strong case against Whitt. Prosecutors have promised to take the case to a grand jury Nov. 25 and, if Whitt is indicted, have him arrested again.

Eddie Gunn, interim director of the state Public Safety Department, apologized for the Highway Patrol's tardiness but questioned Overcash's actions.

"It is my understanding that the magistrate knew the trooper was on the way, and by not waiting for the trooper and seeking an explanation for the delay, the magistrate exceeded his authority by dismissing the case," Gunn said.

Overcash, a magistrate since 1980, is the highest-paid magistrate in the state at $70,569 a year. He comes up for reappointment in April 1999.

"Anything that alerts the sensibility of the public, as this did, needs our attention," said Sen. John Russell, R-Spartanburg. "This isn't a misdemeanor. This is a felony, and the public has a right to be upset."

Court records show Overcash dismissed three cases the day after Whitt's was thrown out, also because officers or prosecution witnesses did not appear. Those included cases of aggravated assault and battery, shoplifting and resisting arrest.