Jeriod Price had served more than half of a 35-year prison sentence for murdering another man at a nightclub in 2002. Then, last month, he became a fugitive. The authorities in South Carolina warned the public that he was dangerous and “could be anywhere in the world,” pleading for information that could aid their sudden, frantic search.
“My prayer, my plea, to someone out there,” Leon Lott, the sheriff in Richland County, S.C., said in early April, standing next to an oversize $5,000 reward check: “Help us.”
Mr. Price had not escaped. A prominent judge, just a day before his own retirement, had signed and then sealed an order clearing the way for Mr. Price’s release from prison in March, even though he still had some 16 years remaining on his sentence.
A month later, the South Carolina Supreme Court overruled the judge’s order. Mr. Price failed to surrender, setting off a manhunt with officers from law enforcement agencies combing the state and beyond.
The judge’s order, later unsealed, justified Mr. Price’s early release by citing critical assistance he had provided to corrections officials, including tipping them off to a high-profile inmate’s escape. Mr. Price’s lawyer said the furtive nature of the process was meant to shield him from retribution.
But law enforcement officials and the family of the man Mr. Price was convicted of murdering in 2002 said they were blindsided by what they have condemned as a deeply suspicious and entirely undeserved deal.
“He’s a coldblooded murderer, and he’s a well-connected coldblooded murderer,” said David Pascoe, who prosecuted Mr. Price for the killing of Carl Smalls Jr., a college football player, at a nightclub in Columbia. “He’s not the type of person we need out on our streets, that’s for sure.”
In South Carolina, the dizzying sequence of events has drawn intense scrutiny of early release deals for inmates.
Last month, Gov. Henry McMaster urged state corrections officials to look for any similar early release orders from the past year, trying to determine just how unusual Mr. Price’s case was. In a letter requesting the review, Mr. McMaster, a Republican, assailed Mr. Price’s release as “seemingly contrary to law and obviously at odds with common sense.”
The Department of Corrections found at least 26 other instances since the beginning of last year in which sentences were reduced after an inmate provided information or other help to law enforcement. In seven other cases, a judge’s order led to the inmate’s immediate release from prison.
Besides Mr. Price, only one other convicted murderer was immediately released, having served 27 years of what was originally a life sentence.
“This report highlights the need for tougher criminal penalties and confirms the General Assembly needs to act to close the revolving door on violent offenders and crack down on career criminals and illegal guns,” Brandon Charochak, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement.
The now-retired judge who signed the release order, Casey Manning, did not respond to a message seeking comment and has not spoken publicly about his decision. But last week, the South Carolina Judicial Branch issued a memorandum emphasizing that a state law allows for early release in certain circumstances. “The sentence reduction in the Price case offended the sensibilities of some,” it said, “but it must be remembered that sentence reductions are by request of the state. Judges don’t make the law, their job is to apply it.”
The backlash to Mr. Price’s release has a political dimension because Mr. Price’s lawyer, Todd Rutherford, is the Democratic leader in the Republican-controlled State House of Representatives and serves on a legislative committee that plays a powerful role in determining who becomes a state judge. South Carolina is one of only two states where the legislature selects judges; the other is Virginia.
Like Mr. Rutherford, many of the lawmakers on the committee are also practicing lawyers — a setup that, critics argue, creates a conflict of interest. The critics have seized on Mr. Price’s release deal in their push to overhaul the state’s judicial selection process.
The search for Mr. Price, 43, began after the South Carolina Supreme Court demanded his return to custody on April 26. But he had been released on March 15 and did not leave much of a trail for investigators to follow. He obtained a driver’s license on April 7 and gave an address in Florence, S.C., about 80 miles from Columbia, officials said.
Mr. Price’s name and face have been splashed across television, social media, newspaper pages and electronic roadside billboards in Columbia. Last week, the authorities announced a significantly larger reward, $30,000, for information leading to his arrest.
“We’re a little behind, but we’ll catch up,” Mr. Lott, the sheriff, said in a recent news conference.
Mr. Rutherford, Mr. Price’s longtime lawyer, has publicly encouraged his client to turn himself in. Still, in an interview, Mr. Rutherford said that the exposure the case has received has imperiled Mr. Price, particularly if he returns to prison. “We have labeled him a snitch for the entire world to see,” he said.
Mr. Price was sentenced in 2003 to 35 years for the fatal shooting of Mr. Smalls, a 22-year-old defensive tackle for the University of North Carolina, in what the authorities said was a gang-related skirmish. Mr. Price did not dispute shooting Mr. Smalls but argued that he was defending himself. Another man was also convicted in the murder.
Much of the process surrounding Mr. Price’s release remains murky.
In December, Judge Manning was being toasted at parties and given one of the state’s highest honors, the Order of the Palmetto, as he had reached the required retirement age of 72.
Still, in his final days on the bench, Judge Manning met in his chambers with Mr. Rutherford and Byron Gipson, the chief prosecuting attorney for the Columbia judicial circuit, where the judge agreed to an order — dated Dec. 30 — that would reduce Mr. Price’s sentence to the 19 years he had already served, according to lawyers and court documents.
The order cited an account of Mr. Price intervening as a corrections officer was being pummeled by inmates, with one preparing to stab the officer. It cited another account of Mr. Price tackling an inmate who was about to hit a corrections officer with a broom.
It also referred to Mr. Price alerting prison officials to the 2017 escape of Jimmy Lee Causey, who had been convicted of the kidnapping and armed robbery of his former lawyer.
One morning in March, Carl Smalls Sr., whose son Mr. Price was convicted of killing, was called by a corrections employee who broke the news: Mr. Price was being released that day. Mr. Smalls and his wife were stunned.
“That just turned everything all over again,” he said in a news conference.
The Smalls family told Mr. Pascoe, who is now the chief prosecutor for a region southeast of Columbia, who was shocked and infuriated. He contacted the state’s attorney general, Alan Wilson, and reporters for The State and for The Post and Courier, two of the state’s largest newspapers.
South Carolina, like other states, has a law allowing for the early release of inmates who give substantial information helping law enforcement or corrections officials. But when the Price case reached the State Supreme Court, some of the justices expressed bewilderment, saying that the process had skirted the proper procedures and had involved a surprising level of secrecy.
“We have a sealed order with no hearing to seal it,” Justice John W. Kittredge said during oral arguments. “It was never filed. Who knew it? Who could file an appeal? It’s a phantom order.”
In a statement, Mr. Gipson said there had been no motion filed by his office because the order had been issued before he had a chance to move ahead with the motion, which prevented a public hearing from being held. Mr. Rutherford said that otherwise, the order met the standard set by law.
Mr. Pascoe has challenged the contents of the order; Mr. Price, he said, was a “huge menace” as an inmate. Prison records showed that Mr. Price was sanctioned multiple times for gang-related activity, leading to stints of 90 days or longer in disciplinary detention and the loss of phone, visitation and canteen privileges.
Starting in 2017, he was sent several times to a prison in New Mexico for extended stretches, including for the last two years before his release.
Mr. Pascoe also said that the claims of Mr. Price protecting corrections officers were based on flimsy accounts, including from another inmate who is now dead. Handling his release in such a covert way, he said, came with consequences, particularly for the Smalls family.
“This was all a sham,” Mr. Pascoe said. “Worse than that, it was a secret.”