South Carolina

Feds Weigh Whether to Seek Death Penalty for Charleston Killer


The federal government’s decision about whether authorities should seek the death penalty against the man accused of killing 9 African-Americans in Charleston is still likely months away, South Carolina U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said in a recent interview with Free Times.
The federal case against alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Storm Roof got off to a surprising start last month when Roof’s lawyer, David Bruck, indicated to a federal judge in Charleston that Roof wished to plead guilty to the 33 federal hate crime charges levied against him. Prosecutors allege that Roof outlined his hate-filled worldview in a racist online manifesto and that he told others he hoped to incite a “race war” with his actions.
However, Bruck told the judge that he couldn’t advise his client on whether to enter that plea until he knows whether Roof could face a death sentence. A temporary “not guilty” plea was entered on Roof’s behalf.
The 21-year-old also faces murder charges from state prosecutors. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett A. Wilson has not yet said whether her office plans to pursue the death penalty in the case.
Nettles says once his office decides on its recommendation, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch would weigh it before coming to a final decision. The South Carolina prosecutor, an Obama appointee who has held the post since 2010, called the process and decision “extraordinarily complex,” noting that generally “enormous deference is given to victims.”
In this case, many family members have garnered worldwide admiration for their forgiveness of Roof.
“I have never witnessed such a pronounced expression of hope or grace,” Nettles says. “A lot of the victims have already expressed forgiveness that is unfathomable.”
Along with interviews with family members of victims, Nettles, a former public defender who has worked on capital cases from the other side of the courtroom, says the federal government’s protocol puts in place “layers of review to balance competing interests.”
A Department of Justice spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Bruck, Roof’s attorney, also could not be reached.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that seeks to provide unbiased information and analysis of the death penalty, says federal prosecutors will weigh several factors in making a decision. (Bruck, Roof’s lawyer, is on the board of the center.)
The wishes of victims’ families, the cost of a capital trial and whether local prosecutors can seek the death penalty themselves are big factors, he says.
Roof’s potential capital charges differ from the ones against Boston terrorist Dzokhar Tsarnaev, Dunham says. State authorities in Massachusetts cannot pursue the death penalty because capital punishment has been ruled unconstitutional there.
Dunham also says that Roof’s indication that he would prefer to plead guilty would save both the federal government and the shooting victims’ families a prolonged trial and hefty costs.
“He’s expressed willingness to plead guilty, and if the death penalty were off the table that would give the family members of the homicide victims an opportunity to give their statements without cross-examination or interruption during sentencing proceeding,” Dunham says. “They could say what they had to say without being subjected to re-traumatization through a trial.”
The federal government also has tools the state does not – the ability to put a permanent muzzle on Roof. As they have done with Tsarnaev, “special administrative measures” could be imposed on Roof, meaning his contact with the outside world would be severely limited, Dunham says. In essence, Roof could be barred from publicly expressing racist views.
“The federal prosecution has the ability to essentially make Dylann Roof disappear from view,” Dunham says. “His ability to become a symbol for white supremacists disappears.”
A trial on Roof’s state murder charges has been set for July 2016. No further hearings have yet been scheduled by federal prosecutors in the case.
Source: free-times.com, August 27, 2015

 

Federal Hate Crime Charges Likely in South Carolina Church Shooting


June 24, 2015

 WASHINGTON — The Justice Department will likely file federal hate crime charges against the man suspected of carrying out a massacre at a storied black church in South Carolina, federal law enforcement officials said Wednesday.
Dylann Roof, 21, already faces nine counts of murder and could receive the death penalty in state court. But there is widespread agreement among officials at the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation that the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston was so horrific and racially motivated that the federal government was obligated to address it, law enforcement officials said.
F.B.I. analysts have also concluded “with a high degree of certainty” that Mr. Roof posted a racist manifesto online, which could be a key to any federal charges, a law enforcement official said. The website was registered in February under Mr. Roof’s name, but the name was made anonymous the following day.
In cases involving violations of both state and federal law, the Justice Department often refrains from bringing federal charges, particularly when suspects face long state prison sentences. But South Carolina does not have a hate crimes law, and federal investigators believe that a murder case alone would leave the racial component of the shooting unaddressed.
The site also showed 60 photographs, including one of Mr. Roof holding a Confederate flag in one hand and a handgun in the other. Other photos of Mr. Roof appeared to have been taken at Confederate heritage sites and slavery museums.
Analysts at the F.B.I. laboratory in Quantico, Va., are also analyzing a computer and phone that Mr. Roof had used, officials said. The agents and analysts are piecing together Mr. Roof’s communications and uncovering any information that may have been deleted.
When federal and state prosecutors each bring charges, they typically coordinate their cases so one does not undermine the other. The death penalty could be a factor. South Carolina’s murder law carries a possible death sentence, while a violation of the federal hate crime law carries up to life in prison. Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, has called for Mr. Roof to face the death penalty.

SOUTH CAROLINA – Ricky Blackwell sentenced to death


march 17, 2014

SPARTANBURG, S.C. —After hours of deliberation a Spartanburg County jury issued the death sentence for Ricky Blackwell.

A short time later the judge confirmed the death sentence for the murder of 8-year-old Brooke Center.

The judge said the sentence is to be carried out on June 14, 2014.

Blackwell was also found guilty of kidnapping Brooke Center, he was sentenced to 30 years in jail on that charge.

Prosecutors called the fatal shooting revenge because Blackwell’s now ex-wife was dating the girl’s father.

The jury’s options were life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.

The seven men and five women seated on the jury found him guilty as charged in just 20 minutes of deliberations earlier in the week.

At 3 p.m. Sunday, the jurors began deliberating Blackwell’s punishment, they returned the sentence just after 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

Before they were released to discuss a possible sentence, a judge told them they must decide whether Blackwell suffers from an intellectual disability, or as stated in court, a mental retardation.

If jurors had found him not to be mentally competent at the time of the crime, they would not have been able to proceed with the death penalty, according to South Carolina law.

The judge told the jurors to come to a death sentence, they had find aggravated circumstances were present when Blackwell committed the crime.  The judge said the two things they could consider aggravators in this case were the age of the victim and the fact it happened during a kidnapping.

The death sentence recommendation had to be a unanimous vote.

Closing arguments began in this sentencing phase began Sunday at 11 a.m., when Blackwell asserted his right to remain silent when the judge asked him if he’d like to make remarks.

Blackwell did not address the jury at any point during the case.

“What a wonderful individual Brooke was,” said solicitor Barry Barnette in his closing arguments.

He told jurors to look at the case closely.

Barnett expressed his disgust with the defense’s assertion that Blackwell suffers from an intellectual disability.

“I got mad,” said Barnette.  “You look at the evidence and no other doctor has ever diagnosed him as such until they paid a doctor from North Carolina to come down and testify that he was. He is not mentally retarded. It’s an insult to people who have this disability. They only did it to spare his life.”

Furthermore, Barnette said Blackwell was a certified employee of several companies where his mental competence would have been questioned.

Barnette got on his knees to illustrate how tall Brooke was and said Blackwell “meant to kill Brooke Center.”

The solicitor said Brooke was shot four times – once in the leg, neck, head and a final shot in her back after she fell to the ground.

“It was no accident,” Barnette shouted in the courtroom.

The solicitor put a Nelson Mandela quote on a projector for the jury to see – which read, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.”

Barnette then showed a picture of a memorial already set up in Brooke’s honor in her community.

“This will affect people for the rest of their lives,” said Barnette.

Barnett began to tear up as he showed the final images to the jury.  It was a side by side comparison of Brooke playing baseball and her lying dead by a swing set after the shooting.

Several jurors were observed wiping tears from their eyes.

The defense presented its closing arguments after a short recess.

Blackwell’s attorney, Bill McGuire, opened up saying he wished photos like they’d just seen not be shown in court.

“He is 55 years old, in poor health and will not last long, but I’m asking you to send him to prison,” McGuire told the jury.  “If the death penalty can do some good, if it could bring Brooke Center back, I’d be the first to say do it, but it won’t.”

McGuire said the jury should let Brooke’s legacy be celebrated by the memorials and ceremonies in her honor instead of sentencing Blackwell to death.

“Imagine if a sign said, “In honor of Brooke we killed a man,” said McGuire.

The public defender portrayed Blackwell as a distraught individual whose marriage was ending.   McGuire said Blackwell was suicidal and tried to kill himself by overdosing on prescription pills before the deadly shooting.

“(If) he’s not a danger to us, then don’t use lethal force,” said McGuire.  “Ricky is mentally retarded. He scored in the bottom 2 percent on IQ tests. Those were reliable tests,” said McGuire.

McGuire stated a person with an intellectual disability like Blackwell could learn skills to perform the jobs he held in the past, referring to the prosecution’s attack on why he was not diagnosed with a disability before this point.

“He has a relationship with God,” said McGuire.  “Everybody he has touched in his life says he is caring, gentle, a good man. See him through the eyes of the people who knew him.”

“He is sorry for what he has done,” said McGuire. “Do you, as a human being, have to kill him? The answer is no. You don’t have to kill Ricky Blackwell.’”

Man Formerly on SC’s Death Row Suing Prosecutors


COLUMBIA, S.C.  – A man condemned for decades to South Carolina’s death row says prosecutors wrongfully pursued a case against him in a widow’s 1982 death.

Edward Lee Elmore filed a federal lawsuit last month accusing prosecutors of planting evidence that implicated him and conspiring to convict him.

Elmore was sentenced to death in the slaying of a 75-year-old widow for whom he had done odd jobs.

That verdict was overturned on appeal three times. Elmore left death row in 2010 when his attorneys argued he was mentally disabled and had a low IQ.

In 2012, he left prison altogether after entering an Alford plea to murder. Prosecutors agreed his punishment should be the 11,000 days Elmore spent incarcerated.

Court papers listed no attorneys for the prosecutors and officers named in Elmore’s lawsuit.

(The Associated Press)

SOUTH CAROLINA – Supreme Court ponders death-row inmate Stanko’s appeal in Conway


October 4, 2012 http://www.myrtlebeachonline.com

COLUMBIA — An appeal by twice convicted murderer Stephen Stanko, who was sentenced to death in both cases, is in the hands of the S.C. Supreme Court justices after attorneys made their oral arguments Thursday.

Stanko, 44, appealed his murder conviction and death sentence from the 2009 trial in Horry County for the fatal shooting of 74-year-old Henry Turner of Conway.

Stanko also was sentenced to die after being convicted in 2006 by a Georgetown County jury in the death of his 43-year-old live-in girlfriend, Laura Ling.

In April 2005, police said Stanko killed Ling in her Murrells Inlet home that he shared with her and Ling’s then-15-year-old daughter, who also was assaulted. Stanko took Ling’s car, drove to Turner’s home in Conway and killed him before taking his pickup truck, according to authorities.

Stanko fled Conway and went to Columbia where he claimed he was a New York millionaire and flirted with several women at a downtown restaurant. From there Stanko went to Augusta, Ga., where the Masters golf tournament was being held and met another woman and spent the weekend with her before he was arrested there.

Prosecutors tried Stanko for Ling’s death and the assault of her daughter and in his defense he claimed a brain injury caused a defect that caused him to not be aware of his criminal responsibility for his actions.

Stanko has already appealed his conviction and death sentence in Ling’s murder and state Supreme Court justices denied his request saying his trial was fair.

On Thursday, Bob Dudek with the S.C. Commission of Indigent Defense told the justices that Stanko’s trial in Conway was flawed because jurors were not given the opportunity to consider insanity as a possible verdict; that attorney Bill Diggs represented Stanko in Ling’s trial and Stanko had appealed that conviction on the basis Diggs was inadequate; that a juror had prior knowledge of the case and was biased toward the death penalty; and the publicity surrounding the case did not allow for a fair trial.

J. Anthony Mabry, who represented the state Attorney General’s office, told the justices that Stanko was not insane, but a psychopath.

Under insanity the test is did he know the difference between right and wrong, not that he could form malice,” Mabry said.

But Dudek said giving jurors instructions to consider malice was part of the crime because a weapon was used does not allow them to consider that Stanko was insane at the time of the crime because he used a gun to shoot Turner.

“You are telling the jury they can infer malice by the use of a deadly weapon and they can skip over insanity,” Dudek said. “There were doctors who testified Stanko was legally insane. … Stanko was not responsible for what he did and that is totally inconsistent with malice.”

Chief Justice Jean Toal asked Dudek to explain how the inference of malice undercut Stanko’s insanity defense.

“There’s no real contest that Mr. Stanko brutally killed this person,” Toal said before describing that there was extensive expert testimony during the trial about Stanko’s frontal lobe injury and his mental defect of not being criminally responsible. “That doesn’t depend on any facts of the crime.”

Dudek replied that just because a gun was used to kill Turner does not mean that Stanko had malice and wasn’t insane.

“Everybody knows juries are very weary of finding people not guilty by reason of insanity because they feel like the person is getting off,” Dudek said.

Another issue justices must consider in the appeal is whether Diggs should have represented Stanko in the Turner case because he had represented Stanko in the Ling case and Stanko had appealed that conviction.

Justice Costa M. Pleicones asked Dudek why should a circuit court judge ignore Stanko’s request for Diggs to represent him in the second trial, and Pleicones called Stanko’s request one the “best arguments by a defendant” that he had ever heard.

“Mr. Stanko made an eloquent, lucid argument as to why he didn’t want Mr. Diggs disqualified,” Pleicones said.

Toal also said Stanko told the court before his trial that Diggs was the only attorney he was comfortable with because Diggs understood his brain injury and the defense.

“He has the ability and right to waive any conflict, does he not?” Toal said.

“No, I disagree,” Dudek said. “The good of the system comes before the right of the defendant.”

The issue of Diggs representation was decided by two circuit court judges and was shown not to be a conflict, Mabry said.

Stanko also appealed that a juror should have been disqualified because she knew about his previous death sentence and Dudek described her as being for the death penalty based on the way she answered some questions.

But Mabry questioned if the juror was confused by questions from Diggs because John said during the voir dire that he was confused. The juror later said she could set aside any prior knowledge and make her decision based on the facts of the case, Mabry said.

In the appeal, Stanko also asked for the court to consider his mental illness and that he is not fit for execution, but Toal said now was not the time to discuss the issue because his execution is not near.

“We couldn’t consider … a person’s mental status until execution looms,” Toal said. “That decision also could never be made at trial.”

It is unclear when the justices will issue a ruling in the appeal. Stanko is being held on death row at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville.

SOUTH DAKOTA – Two brothers sentenced to death in separate states


May 27, source : http://www.freep.com

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Rodney Berget lives in a single cell on South Dakota’s death row, rarely leaving the tiny room where he awaits execution for bludgeoning a prison guard to death with a pipe during an attempted escape.

For Berget’s immediate family, his fate is somewhat familiar. He is the second member of the clan to be sentenced to death. His older brother was convicted in 1987 of killing a man for his car. Roger Berget spent 13 years on Oklahoma’s death row until his execution in 2000 at age 39.

The Bergets are not the first pair of siblings to be condemned. Record books reveal at least three cases of brothers who conspired to commit crimes and both got the death penalty. But these two stand out because their crimes were separated by more than 600 miles and 25 years.

“To have it in different states in different crimes is some sort of commentary on the family there,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death penalty trends.

The siblings’ journey from the poverty of their South Dakota childhood to stormy, crime-ridden adult lives shows the far-reaching effects of a damaged upbringing — and the years of havoc wrought by two men who developed what the courts called a wanton disregard for human life.

Rodney Berget is scheduled to die later this year, potentially ending the odyssey that began when the two boys were born into a family that already had four kids.

A former prison principal described Rodney as a “throwaway kid” who never had a chance at a productive life. A lawyer for Roger recalled him as an “ugly duckling” with little family support.

The boys were born after the family moved from their failed farm in rural South Dakota to Aberdeen, a city about 20 miles away. Roger arrived in 1960. Rodney came along two years later.

His farming dreams dashed, patriarch Benford Berget went to work for the state highway department. Rosemary Berget took a night job as a bar manager at the local Holiday Inn.

The loss of the farm and the new city life seemed to strain the family and the couple’s marriage. When the family moved to town, “things kind of fell apart,” Bonnie Engelhart, the eldest Berget sibling, testified in 1987.

Benford Berget, away on business, was rarely around. When he was home, he drank and become physically abusive, lawyers for the brothers later said.

By the 1970s, the couple divorced, and Roger and Rodney started getting into trouble. Roger skipped school. Rodney started stealing. Soon, they were taking cars. Both went to prison for the first time as teens.

Roger Berget enjoyed a rare period of freedom in 1982 and met a woman while hitchhiking. The two started a relationship, and the woman gave birth to a child the next year. But Roger didn’t get to see his son often because he was soon behind bars again, this time in Oklahoma. And for a far more sinister crime.

Roger and a friend named Michael Smith had decided to steal a random car from outside an Oklahoma City grocery store. The two men spotted 33-year-old Rick Patterson leaving the store on an October night in 1985. After abducting him at gunpoint, they put Patterson in the trunk and concluded he would have to be killed to prevent him from identifying his captors.

They drove the car to a deserted spot outside the city and shot Patterson in the back of the head and neck, blowing away the lower half of his face.

A year later, Berget pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to death on March 12, 1987. An appeals court threw out a death sentence for Smith, who was later sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Less than three months after Roger was sentenced to death, Rodney Berget, then 25 and serving time for grand theft and escape, joined five other inmates in breaking out of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

The men greased their bodies with lotion, slipped through a hole in an air vent and then cut through window bars in an auto body shop at the prison. Berget was a fugitive for more than a month.

Thirteen years passed before Roger Berget was executed by lethal injection on June 8, 2000. His younger brother was still in prison in South Dakota.

Then in 2002, the younger Berget was released. His sister and her husband threw Rodney his first-ever birthday party when he turned 40.

But the good days were numbered because a year later, he was sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder and kidnapping. He headed back to the South Dakota State Penitentiary — this time for good.

Then Rodney got to talking with a fellow inmate named Eric Robert about a goal they shared: to escape — or die trying.

The plan was months in the making. The inmates figured they would corner a solitary guard — any guard would do — and beat him with a pipe before covering his face with plastic wrap.

Once the guard was dead, Robert would put on the dead man’s uniform and push a box with Berget inside as the prison gates opened for a daily delivery. The two would slip through the walls unnoticed.

On the morning of April 12, 2011, the timing seemed perfect. Ronald “R.J.” Johnson was alone in a part of the prison where inmates work on upholstery, signs, custom furniture and other projects. Johnson wasn’t supposed to be working that day — it was his 63rd birthday. But he agreed to come in because of a scheduling change.

After attacking Johnson, Robert and Berget made it outside one gate. But they were stopped by another guard before they could complete their escape through the second gate. Both pleaded guilty.

In a statement to a judge, Rodney acknowledged he deserved to die.

“I knew what I was doing, and I continued to do it,” Berget said. “I destroyed a family. I took away a father, a husband, a grandpa.”

His execution, scheduled for September, is likely to be delayed to allow the State Supreme Court time to conduct a mandatory review.

Rodney Berget’s lawyer, Jeff Larson, has declined to comment on the case outside of court. Rodney did not respond to letters sent to the penitentiary.

The few members of the Berget family who survive are reluctant to talk about how seemingly normal boys turned into petty criminals and then into convicted killers of the rarest kind: brothers sentenced to death.

Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center, said some families of the condemned remain involved in appeals. But others see no reason to preserve connections.

“There’s no light at the end of it,” he said. “What happens at the end is execution.”

SOUTH CAROLINA – Rate of death sentences, executions slows in state


may 7, 2012 sourcehttp://www.greenvilleonline.com

COLUMBIA — A judge in Lexington County is considering doing something that hasn’t been done in South Carolina in over 14 months — send a convicted murderer to death row.

If Kenneth Lynch is sentenced to death for killing a 7-year-old girl and her 53-year-old grandmother, he would be the 52nd inmate on South Carolina’s death row, boosting the population up from its nearly two decade-low.

The pace of executions has slowed considerably too. South Carolina has executed just one inmate in past three years. There were 72 people awaiting execution in the state at the end of June 2005, and just 10 executions in the state since then. Prosecutors in South Carolina sent no one to death row in 2011, the first time that happened since at least 1994.

It’s not that South Carolina has lost its willingness to put people to death. More than a dozen death penalty bills were filed during this session of the General Assembly, many of them seeking to add crimes to the list of aggravating factors prosecutors must prove to get a death sentence. The state also changed the way it conducts lethal injections because of a shortage of one of the drugs it had been using.

As states like Connecticut outlaw capital punishment, and neighbor North Carolina discusses whether it is applied fairly, South Carolina seems content with its laws as written.

Instead, prosecutors worry that complex death penalty trials are too expensive in all but the most extreme cases. South Carolina abolished parole for life sentences in 1995, making “life means life” an attractive option for juries and prosecutors who can use the chance of the death penalty to leverage a guilty plea.

There may be no better way to illustrate how seeking the death penalty has changed in South Carolina in the past two decades than the case of Shaquan Duley, who is serving 35 years in prison after pleading guilty in March to suffocating her 2-year-old and 18-month-old sons, putting them into a car and rolling them into a Orangeburg County river to try to make it look like an accidental drowning

read full article : click here 

South Carolina – Inmate Released After Nearly 30 Years on Death Row – Edward Lee Elmore


Edward Lee Elmore was released from prison in South Carolina on March 2 after agreeing to a plea arrangement in which he maintained his innocence but agreed the state could re-convict him of murder in a new trial.  He had been on death row for nearly 30 years after being convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the sexual assault and murder of an elderly woman in Greenwood, South Carolina. The state’s case was based on evidence gathered from a questionable investigation and on testimony with glaring discrepancies. Elmore’s appellate lawyers discovered evidence pointing to Elmore’s possible innocence that prosecutors had withheld. Originally, state officials repeatedly claimed the evidence had been lost. The evidence included a hair sample collected from the crime scene. After being tested for DNA, the evidence suggested an unknown Caucasian man may have been the killer.  In February 2010, Elmore was found to have intellectual disabilities and thus was ineligible for execution; he was taken off death row.  In November 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit granted him a new trial because of the prosecutorial misconduct in handling the evidence. The court found there was  “persuasive evidence that the agents were outright dishonest,” and there was “further evidence of police ineptitude and deceit.”

Raymond Bonner, a former New York Times reporter who wrote a book about the case (“Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong”), said Elmore’s journey through the justice system “stands out because it raises nearly all the issues that shape debate about capital punishment: race, mental retardation, a jailhouse informant, DNA testing, bad defense lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct and a strong claim of innocence.”  He noted, “Once a person has been convicted, even on unimaginably shaky grounds, an almost inexorable process — one that usually ends in execution — is set in motion. On appeal, gone is the presumption of innocence; the presumption is that the defendant had a fair trial. Not even overwhelming evidence that the defendant is innocent is necessarily enough to get a new trial.”

(R. Bonner, “When Innocence Isn’t Enough,” New York Times, March 2, 2012).  See Innocence and Intellectual Disabilities.