During his 40-year career, Donnie Myers never shed a tear for the killers he tried, 28 of whom he convinced juries to send to Death Row – some of them twice after the defendants won new trials or sentencing hearings.
“When I get into court, I don’t even want to give that person (a killer) a bottle of air to breath from,” Myers once told a reporter in 1990.
No prosecutor in South Carolina has tried more death penalty cases than Myers. And he quickly drew nicknames like “Doctor Death” and “Death Penalty Donnie” for pursuing the death penalty frequently and frequently getting a jury to agree with him.
Myers announced last week he won’t run again for the position of 11th Circuit Solicitor, bringing an end soon to an era of sometimes over-the-top courtroom theatrics and creative legal tactics designed to convince 12 people to vote for the ultimate punishment. Death verdicts must be unanimous.
Myers’ career as a prosecutor bridged the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s – a time when support for capital punishment and the practice of executing convicted killers rose and fell.
Over the years, Myers succeeded in getting some of South Carolina’s most depraved and dangerous – such as serial killer Larry Gene Bell, who kidnapped at random a young girl and a young woman – into the electric chair. Bell’s random snatchings of Shari Faye Smith, 17, and Debra May Helmick, 9, and the later discovery of their bodies in Lexington County, had terrorized the Midlands during the summer of 1985. Bell was executed in 1996.
But Myers’ three dozen-plus death penalty trials have resulted in few executions.
A look at his statistics, compiled by Justice 360, the Columbia-based death penalty monitoring and defense group, shows that from 1977 to the present, Myers:
▪ Won 39 death sentences against 28 defendants. (Some defendants were tried twice.)
▪ Of those 28 defendants, only six have been executed.
▪ Seven of the 28 are still on Death Row.
▪ Twelve were eventually given life sentences.
▪ Two died on Death Row.
▪ One, Joseph Ard, was released after the charges against him were reduced to involuntary manslaughter and he was given credit for time served. At the time of his original sentencing, in 1996, Ard was the first person sentenced to death in South Carolina for a killing involving a fetus.
Most of Myers’ death cases and subsequent rulings on appeal are noteworthy, either because of the killer’s notoriety, or the legal precedents set.
Here’s a look at five of Myers’ more memorable cases and their appeals, including the most recent – last week – when a federal judge excoriated Myers for using racist language to inflame the jury that sentenced Johnny Bennett to death.
THE STATE V. BENNETT. On Wednesday, U.S. Judge Richard Gergel of Charleston vacated Bennett’s death sentence, saying Myers used offensive, racist language to secure a death penalty conviction in 2000 before an all-white Lexington County jury.
Myers “made multiple statements clearly calculated to excite the jury with racial imagery and stereotypes,” Gergel wrote in his order. Bennett had been convicted of murder and armed robbery in the 1990 death of Benton Smith, who was stabbed more that 70 times with a Phillips-head screwdriver.
Specifically, Gergel wrote, Myers called Bennett – a 6-7 African-American weighing 300 pounds – “King Kong,” a reference to the giant black movie ape, and also presented evidence showing the black defendant had a relationship with a blond, white female prison guard.
In his ruling, Gergel noted that a slice of white culture in America has a “long and ugly history of depicting African-Americans as monkeys and apes. ... King Kong, as vividly depicted in the (movie) studio’s promotional literature, involved a giant ape who escaped from captivity, kidnapped a white woman and went on a murderous rampage.”
Myers’ use of such language before an all-white jury was “a not so subtle dog whistle on race that this court cannot and will not ignore,” Gergel wrote. “The Solicitor made multiple statements clearly calculated to excite the jury with racial imagery and stereotypes.”
Gergel’s ruling was remarkable for its pages devoted to American racial discrimination and civil rights history. Gergel also included an exhibit rarely seen in dry judges’ rulings – a photo of a movie poster for King Kong, clutching a white woman in his hand.
Myers on Friday said in an email he sent to The State newspaper that before the case had come before Gergel, the S.C. Supreme Court and a circuit judge each had on two previous occasions upheld Bennett’s death sentence.
“We are requesting the Attorney General’s office to immediately appeal (Gergel’s) order,” Myers’ statement said.
THE STATE V. KELLY. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 overturned the 1996 death sentence of William A. Kelly, ruling that at his trial, the judge in the case refused to tell the jury that if it gave Kelly a life sentence, he could not be paroled.
Kelly had killed a pregnant woman, Shirley Shealy, by stabbing her, slashing her throat and then robbing her.
Studies have shown that juries who know that a convicted killer will get life without parole are less likely to impose a death penalty.
This case, and a later law passed by the S.C. General Assembly, finally stopped the practice in South Carolina courtrooms that allowed the judge and the prosecutor deliberately to let a death penalty jury wrongly assume that a vicious killer might be paroled in 20 or so years.
Kelly is now serving a life sentence in the S.C. Department of Corrections.
THE STATE V. FINKLEA. In this case, one of Myers’ most vivid courtroom stunts was found to be legal by the S.C. Supreme Court. The case involved Ron Finklea, who had been convicted of robbing an ATM and in the process, shooting a security guard, dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire with a lighter, killing him.
At trial, during his death penalty argument, Myers held out a large, match-shaped, metal fire-starter before the jury and ignited it, saying, “Gasoline pouring on another human being and the fire, the fire, the burning. When you’re cooking sometimes and you touch the stove ... and you touch that hot thing or you’re grilling, whooo, oh, it hurts, it’s painful.”
Over defense protests, the high court approved Myers’ use of flicking a lighter to make his point during the jury argument.
Finklea remains on Death Row. His appeals are pending.
THE STATE V. NORTHCUTT. In this 2007 decision, the S.C. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Ron Northcutt, who was convicted of the 2001 killing of his infant daughter, Breanna, by beating her to death because she would not stop crying.
In his argument to the jury seeking death, Myers had, among other over-the-top actions, inflamed the jury “by producing a large black shroud and draping it over (a) baby’s crib,” the Supreme Court ruled. Myers then wheeled the crib from the courtroom in a staged funeral procession and also improperly told the jury they would “declare open season on babies in Lexington County” if they did not give Northcutt the death penalty.
After another sentencing trial, Northcutt was sentenced again to death. He is now on Death Row.
THE STATE V. QUATTLEBAUM. Myers drew a sharp reprimand from the S.C. Supreme Court for unethical conduct when one of his assistant solicitors eavesdropped on a defense attorney’s legally protected, confidential conversation with Robert Quattlebaum, who was charged with murder and armed robbery.
“Prosecutors are ministers of justice and not merely advocates,” the Supreme Court wrote in overturning Quattlebaum’s 2000 death penalty sentence. “The participation at trial of a prosecutor who has eavesdropped on the accused and his attorney tarnishes us all. We will not tolerate prosecutorial misconduct ...,” the high court’s majority opinion said.
Myers did not directly participate in the eavesdropping, but when he found out about it, he did not ensure that his office disclosed the action to defense attorneys. A supervising attorney, such as Myers, must make sure his subordinates choose ethical actions, the high court said.
Quattlebaum is now serving a life sentence.
DEATH PENALTY DECLINE
EXECUTIONS DROP NATIONWIDE. Nationwide, in 2015, there were only 29 executions – the lowest number since 1991, according to the National Death Penalty Information Center.
AND IN SC. Across South Carolina, courts have only imposed the death penalty twice in the past five years.
ON HOLD. Currently, the S.C. Department of Corrections is unable to get the lethal drugs necessary to carry out executions, even if one were to be ordered by the state Supreme Court. South Carolina has not held an execution since 2011.