Jury trials return in Columbus

Edward Deron Riggins
Edward Deron Riggins

After more than a year on hold, jury trials for criminal cases have returned to the Columbus County courthouse.

While there have been civil trials with empaneled jurors, the first two criminal trials since March 2018 both involved armed felons last week. Both resulted in convictions.

Asst. District Attorney Jacob Ward said Edward Deron Riggins, 31, was found guilty on Friday of one count of discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling and one count of possessing a firearm as a convicted felon.  Riggins was sentenced to a minimum of 116 months and a maximum of 164 months in prison. 

In a press release, Ward said the Riggins ambushed a neighbor on the evening of August 16, 2018. Riggins waited outside of the victim’s Tillman Avenue home until the victim returned from an evening with friends and began opening fire while he and his wife were inside.  Glenn and Joann Bellamy escaped injury, and Glenn Bellamy returned fire, hitting Riggins at least once. He was transported by a private vehicle to a South Carolina hospital, where he was later arrested.  

The trial was one of two that took place in Columbus County this week after a long period of Superior Court closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier in the week a jury found Mason Troy Nickleson, 31, guilty of possession of a weapon by an inmate and habitual felon status.  Nickleson was sentenced to a minimum of 103 months and maximum of 139 months in the Department of Adult Corrections. 

Nickleson was serving time for second degree burglary when he was found to be in possession of a homemade knife in Columbus Correctional. He has an extensive criminal record stretching back to 2007, including multiple arrests for assault with a deadly weapon and fleeing police.

Jury trials were closed in March 2020 due the pandemic. Chief State Supreme Court Justice Tom Newby campaigned last fall on a platform of reopening courts with more local control over lockdowns. Among his first actions in office this spring was to loosen restrictions on local courthouses, then turn over decisions about pandemic response to local officials.

Columbus County leased the former Hallsboro Middle School for use as a courthouse annex last summer. Multiple sessions of court were held at the closed school facility, which was examined as a model by a number of court systems across the state.
Civil cases generally involve fewer people in a courtroom, so social distancing was easier to maintain. Witnesses, law enforcement officers, court security and family members often fill the room for a criminal jury trial, making it difficult to provide enough room for proper social distancing.
Clerk of Superior Court Jess Hill said the Hallsboro Annex will close June 30. Hill, Resident Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser and other court officials worked together to create a plan that provided for social distancing and other safety rules while still allowing courts to remain open. The Columbus court system was one of the few in the state that never completely halted operations due to COVID-19.

While district and civil court along with day to day operations continued, jury trials were put on hold for months. More than 30 murder trials were already backlogged before the pandemic hit, along with multiple drug, sex offense and other felony cases.

The murder trial of James Edward McKamey, charged with the 2016 stabbing death of Whiteville music teacher Carol Greer, was in jury selection when the state closed courthouses due to the pandemic. The jury was dismissed and a new pool will be assembled for the trial.

Ward thanked the sheriff’s office for its work on the Riggins and Nickleson cases.

“Successful prosecutions such as these could not be possible without the hard work of the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office and the service of the citizen and residents of Columbus County,” Ward said. 

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Jefferson Weaver is the Managing Editor of Columbus County News and he can be reached at (910) 914-6056, (910) 632-4965, or by email at [email protected].