June 26, 2014

Supreme Court asks for records from 2001 rape, murder of Rock Hill girl

The U.S. Supreme Court has asked for more than 3,000 pages of trial notes, transcripts and evidence in the case of a Rock Hill man convicted of raping and killing his daughter more than a decade ago.

The U.S. Supreme Court has asked for more than 3,000 pages of trial notes, transcripts and evidence in the case of a Rock Hill man convicted of raping and killing his daughter more than a decade ago.

The request gives a glimmer of hope to lawyers for Billy Wayne Cope that his long-awaited appeal of denials by South Carolina courts might be heard. Last year, the state Supreme Court rejected Cope’s appeal. It is that decision Cope has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review.

Prosecutors, however, questioned whether the justices’ order was a significant development with any bearing on whether the federal court would hear Cope’s appeal.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered lawyers to submit the entire record pertaining to Cope, 50, who was convicted in 2004 of conspiring with another man to rape and murder his 12-year-old daughter, Amanda Cope.

That record includes the 3,500-page transcript from his trial, and evidence lawyers used to argue their cases, said Michael Smith, one of Cope’s lawyers.

It remains unclear when the justices will decide whether to hear Cope’s appeal. They have until Monday, when the current Supreme Court term ends. Smith said a Supreme Court clerk told him not to expect a decision until after the court reconvenes in October.

It’s rare for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear most requests seeking reviews of decisions made by a lower court. But the request for trial records gives Cope’s lawyers reason to be optimistic, Smith said, if it in any way signals they are interested in the case.

At the very least, he said, “it’s a possibility” – though he conceded that asking for records might be a routine request.

“I don’t know what the significance of that is,” said 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett. “I don’t think you can speculate on the meaning of it at all. I really don’t know what the import is.”

Prosecutors point out that Cope confessed three times to beating, raping and eventually strangling his daughter on Nov. 29, 2001. On Amanda Cope’s body, investigators found semen and saliva that belonged to James Edward Sanders, a convicted rapist who had been released from prison around the time the girl was killed.

Jurors found both Cope and Sanders guilty in Amanda’s death after prosecutors argued the two men worked together to rape and kill the girl. Both are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Cope has been appealing his conviction for about a decade, denying prosecutors’ claims that he conspired with Sanders, much less that he even knew him. Instead, Cope says, Sanders broke into his house while he was asleep and killed his daughter. Cope’s lawyers say he was coerced into falsely confessing after he was subjected to a false polygraph test.

Jurors also were not allowed to hear testimony about other crimes Sanders committed near Cope’s home around the same time, including assault, rape and burglary, lawyers say.

Prosecutors counter that police found no evidence of a break-in and claimed at trial that Cope let Sanders in the house. Investigators said Cope asked if semen was on the girl’s body before investigators determined the fluids belonged to another man. Cope also confessed to having staged the crime scene to make it appear that Amanda had strangled herself with a blanket.

Cope also was charged with sexually assaulting his two younger daughters, but those charges were dismissed with the right to restore once he was found guilty at trial in Amanda’s death.

The state Attorney’s General Office, which opposes Cope’s appeal, declined to comment on Thursday because Cope’s appeal remains a “pending court matter,” spokesman Mark Powell said.

Cope’s attorneys will try to visit him in prison next week to tell him about the latest development in his case, Smith said.

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