A York County man sentenced to life in prison eight years ago for killing his 12-year-old daughter could get a new trial, with the S.C. Supreme Court agreeing to review the case as early as this fall.
Among key issues in the review will be Billy Wayne Cope’s confession to Rock Hill police — a confession his lawyers contend was coerced, since evidence has established that DNA taken from the slain girl came from another man, according to legal papers filed by Cope’s lawyers.
The case of Cope, now 48, has attracted the attention of national legal experts on false confessions and DNA evidence, who say Cope was wrongly convicted.
However, it’s also possible the Supreme Court could uphold Cope’s guilty verdicts.
In January 2002, two months after Cope was charged with murder in the death of his daughter Amanda, Rock Hill police arrested and charged James Sanders, now 52, an ex-con, sex predator and burglar, with breaking into houses in Cope’s neighborhood and assaulting women around the time Amanda was slain.
Eleven months after Cope had been charged, DNA results linked Sanders — but not Cope — to Amanda. At that time, police kept the original charges of murder and criminal sexual conduct against Cope but added a charge of conspiracy, saying Cope and Sanders conspired to kill Amanda. There was no evidence Cope and Sanders knew each other.
Still, prosecutors put the men on trial together in 2004, and a jury convicted them both of murder, criminal sexual conduct and conspiracy.
In 2009, the S.C. Court of Appeals did an unusual flip-flop, issuing two contradictory opinions on Cope’s guilt.
In the first opinion, issued in April 2009, the court overturned a key jury finding of conspiracy between Cope and Sanders for lack of evidence but let stand a murder and criminal sexual conduct conviction against Cope. Then, realizing the murder and sex charges against Cope could not stand without a finding that Cope conspired with Sanders, the Court of Appeals reversed itself and in October 2009 issued a new opinion, reinstating the conspiracy conviction.
It was the court’s second decision that has been on appeal to the S.C. Supreme Court.
The Cope case has attracted the attention of two lawyers known nationally for overturning wrongful convictions. David Bruck, who works on a Washington and Lee University School of Law project including Virginia death penalty cases, overturned dozens of death sentences in South Carolina, including six death penalty reversals in the U.S. Supreme Court. Steven Drizin of the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern School of Law in Illinois is also interested.
Bruck and Drizin are lead lawyers in Cope’s appeal. Columbia defense attorneys Sherry Lydon and John Barton, both former federal prosecutors, also have been involved in the effort to win Cope a new trial.
“We are grateful the Supreme Court has decided to take another look at this case,” said Rock Hill attorney Jim Morton, who represented Cope at his 2004 trial.
Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett, Cope’s lead prosecutor, said: “We are confident in our position legally. We think Judge (John) Hayes got it right, and we think the Court of Appeals got it right. Often, the Supreme Court takes a look at a case because they may want to clarify the law. We look forward to making our case. Ultimately, the jury reached a just result.”
Brackett maintains Cope is guilty for several reasons, including no forced entry into Cope’s home, and that the front door and windows were locked.
Even though Cope recanted, he did confess, and the jury believed his confession.
Greg Adams, University of South Carolina legal ethics professor, said, “It would be unusual for the Supreme Court to grant (a review) if the justices all thought the Court of Appeals had gotten it correctly.”
Last fall, Adams devoted a class to discussing the Cope case. And this Thursday and Friday, the USC Law School will hold a symposium on prosecutor ethics and duties, and the Cope case — among others — will no doubt be discussed there, Adams said.
Any hearing for oral arguments by the Supreme Court would not be held until fall, at the earliest. Cope will remain in prison. The high court could uphold the Court of Appeals decision or it could grant Cope a new trial.