Loyalty After Death
Mullins McLeod left no stone unturned when a former mayor was murdered
Published in 2022 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine on April 29, 2022
On May 16, 2011, Cottageville Police Officer Randall Price fatally shot Bert Reeves, a former mayor of the 800-person town northwest of Charleston.
Reeves, acting as a concerned citizen, was obtaining formal abuse-of-authority and excessive-force complaints against Price—who had been featured in the 2005 Post and Courier article “Tarnished Badges”—when Price, driving a police-issued vehicle, boxed Reeves in on a single-lane dirt road and, ultimately, killed him.
Mullins McLeod, a Charleston personal injury attorney, was at the victim’s family’s home within hours of the shooting. He grew up 15 miles away in Walterboro, and he and Reeves had been close friends since childhood. “Probably some lawyers, on the outside looking in, would say that I wouldn’t be a good fit because I was so close to the victim,” McLeod says. “There was no doubt I was taking the case.”
It turned out to be more challenging than expected. Both Price and the police chief, John Craddock, who was a witness, pled the Fifth throughout discovery and the defense argued the shooting was self-defense. McLeod had to rely almost entirely on circumstantial evidence to prove excessive force.
McLeod was, however, able to reconstruct the crime scene thanks to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s file. “They did an investigation following the shooting,” he says. “SLED, they don’t make prosecutorial decisions and they don’t make findings. But they have the statutory authority to basically gather evidence.”
Using the SLED file, McLeod placed vehicle positions and took note of other physical evidence. He says he left no stone unturned. “I went through and analyzed every piece of it. We were also able to get footage from a local Subway that was significant from a timing standpoint. And we were able to get footage from town hall, where Reeves was because of the issues that citizens were having with Price.”
The trial began in October 2014. At one point Craddock took the stand, testifying that Reeves approached Price’s cruiser as Price was standing behind the driver’s-side door, with the window down, when he shot Reeves.
“Most policing experts would tell you that a police officer is not at risk of serious bodily injury or death when he has a car door that separates the two,” says McLeod, who adds that Reeves was unarmed. “It’s a small, rural, dirt road. There’s woods. [Reeves would] have to go through the door to get to the police officer.
“It’s one thing for an officer to stop someone for a lawful objective. In this instance, there was no lawful objective for the officer to box Bert Reeves in,” he continues. “It’s also one thing if the police officer doesn’t know that person. Let’s say it’s midnight, and they’re stopped on an interstate; the officer has no idea what he’s going to encounter. Here, it’s broad daylight and he knows the guy: He’s the former mayor of the town.”
Outside the courtroom, McLeod asked the defense for $2 million, while opposing counsel maintained there was only $1 million in insurance coverage. After the first week of trial, McLeod offered to settle at $1.5 million, but the defense wouldn’t budge above $1.25.
McLeod didn’t ask for a specific number from the jury, which, after nine days of trial, deliberated for four hours. They came back with $97.5 million—$7.5 million in actual damages, plus $60 million in punitive damages against the town and $30 million in punitive damages against Price. The jurors found Cottageville was negligent in hiring Price, as well as in continuing to employ him despite past conduct complaints.
“When the jury read the verdict, my eyes filled with tears,” McLeod says. “For me, every time it happens, it’s this overwhelming feeling of relief and humility that the system worked.
“I still have a close relationship with Bert’s two children,” he continues. “His son, Ross, was at my farm last month. Knowing that I did all I could do to help the children with their father no longer being with us—it’s a responsibility I feel, and it’s important to me. Friendship, to me, is a real thing. Loyalty to me is real. And with my friends, my loyalty extends long after death. … It’s just the way I live my life.”