Todd Kohlhepp deserved the death penalty, 7th Circuit Solicitor Barry Barnette said, and Barnette would have pursued it, but a host of factors led the prosecution team to agree to a plea deal for the serial killer that brought swift justice for the families of his victims.
Among them; South Carolina wouldn’t have a way to put Kohlhepp – or any of its 38 death row inmates - to death.
High costs and the time it would take to prosecute the case also weighed into the decision, as did the length of time inmates spend on death row and the high possibility of retrial for death penalty cases, Barnette said.
But the chief reason, he said, was that families didn’t want the pain and lack of closure capital murder trials often bring from having to litigate and re-litigate cases and sometimes decades of waiting until a death sentence is carried out.
Kohlhepp was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences Friday by Judge Derham Cole on seven murder charges. He pleaded guilty to 14 charges in all. Kohlhepp was arrested Nov. 3 after Anderson police officers and Spartanburg County investigators found Kala Brown, who had been missing from Anderson, alive and chained inside a storage container on Kohlhepp’s property, where he’d kept her for more than two months.
Brown told law enforcement officers she’d witnessed Kohlhepp shoot her boyfriend, Charles Carver, to death and that he’d told her he was the killer in a quadruple homicide at Superbike Motorsports in Chesnee that had stumped local and federal investigators for 13 years. Kohlhepp later returned to the property to show investigators where the bodies of Carver, and a married couple, Meagan and Johnny Coxie, were buried.
Instead of a trial, which could have taken two or more years to take place, prosecutors instead reached a plea deal just seven months after Kohlhepp’s arrest.
Former solicitors in South Carolina said that was extremely quick, especially for a high profile case with multiple victims.
Walt Wilkins, 13th Circuit Solicitor for Greenville and Pickens counties, said it was a relatively quick conclusion for a murder case anywhere in the state system.
“Very quick,” said Dick Harpootlian, a former 5th Circuit solicitor who prosecuted death penalty cases involving 10 people and also defended two death penalty cases as an attorney. “For a case of that magnitude, yes, very quick. Typically it would be almost a year.”
To Barnette’s credit, he analyzed the case, spoke with the victims and made a decision quickly, Harpootlian said.
“Waiting isn’t going to help,” he said.
The speed in which Kohlhepp was brought to justice brought a satisfying end to the process for families who wanted as little to do with him as possible, family members said on multiple occasions.
“The fact that we were able to find out who did this, have him sentenced and have him actually gone within six months? That’s swift. That’s some swift justice,” said Melissa Ponder Brackman, whose husband Scott Ponder and mother-in-law Beverly Guy were victims in the Superbike murders.
Barnette has been involved in eight capital murder cases in his career.
We got death sentences on all eight and none of them have been put to death,” he said.
A lengthy appeals process, re-trial of cases and the state’s lack of a method for execution have contributed to significant delays on death row.
The last inmate South Carolina executed was in 2011. The state now has 38 inmates on death row. More than half have been awaiting their fate for more than 15 years. The longest has been on death row for 34 years.
In 2001, Barnette and then-solicitor Trey Gowdy led the prosecution of Richard Bernard Moore, who was convicted of killing convenience store clerk James Mahoney. Mahoney’s family wanted to pursue the death penalty, and they did, Barnette said.
Moore is still on death row and hasn’t even started his federal appeals yet, he said.
Mahoney’s family moved to Spartanburg and Barnette said he sees them about once a year. He said he’s watched as families suffer waiting for justice.
“I just hate it,” he said.
Kohlhepp’s victims didn’t want the toll a death penalty case would’ve brought, Brackman said.
“The death penalty is not swift. We would probably have been tied up in court for probably 15 more years, and in starting this out, they said it would probably not go to court for another 3 years while they were getting the evidence together,” Brackman said. “Truthfully that just wasn’t appealing to any of us.
“The death penalty really isn’t the death penalty anymore,” she said. “People get the death penalty, and they’re still alive 25 years later so what good does it do?”
In 2013, South Carolina’s supply of pentobarbital, one of the drugs it uses in its lethal injections, expired and the state hasn’t been able to replenish its supply because drug manufacturers won’t sell it to the state, Department of Corrections director Bryan Stirling has said.
Stirling has said the state won’t be able to buy more without a shield law to protect the identity of drug manufacturers because of pressure from anti-death penalty advocates.
A Senate panel met this year to discuss the issue but no solution is in sight.
The final decision whether to seek the death penalty rests with the solicitor, said Wilkins, but solicitors give great deference to victim’s families, he said.
The solicitor must also consider the costs of a case and the time it will take to prepare for trial, Wilkins said. It taxes the solicitor’s offices because all of its resources end up devoted to the case, he said.
Once you file a notice that you’re seeking the death penalty, “the clock really slows down,” he said.
The Kohlhepp plea deal probably saved the state $1 million or more in litigation costs, Harpootlian said.
And since death penalty cases are highly scrutinized, about 70 percent of the ones in Greenville or Pickens counties end up being sent back to the district for resentencing due to prosecution or defense errors, Wilkins said.
“You have to tell a family, there’s a chance in 10 years you could all have to come back here and do this all over again,” he said. “You talk about reopening a wound. That’s all you’re doing right there is reopening a very painful wound. And nobody wants to endure that.”
Lorraine Lucas, the mother of Superbike victim Brian Lucas, said she was advised to sit in a courtroom of a death row inmate’s post-conviction relief hearing before she made her decision about the plea deal, and that helped make up her mind.
“I just wanted him to go away,” Lucas said.
Kala Brown felt the same way, her attorney said.
“During the early stages of this prosecution, when we discussed the potential sentencing in this case, and at our first meeting with the solicitor, Kala made it clear that she was in agreement with a lifetime no parole sentence,” Alex Stalvey, one of Kala Brown’s attorneys, said. “She’s never wavered from that decision.”
Many victims want the finality of knowing the murderer isn’t going to murder again, Harpootlian said.
“Life without parole in the state prison system means you get taken out in a pine box,” he said.
A trial in the Kohlhepp case would’ve presented significant challenges, Barnette said. First, the Superbike case rested largely on circumstantial evidence – Kohlhepp’s confession to his mother. And since his mother died earlier this year, her testimony couldn’t be used, he said.
There was never any really good direct evidence of Kohlhepp’s involvement in the murders “because we would have prosecuted him back then,” said Wilkins, who as U.S. attorney had traced hundreds of leads working with the FBI on the Superbike case.
The evidence was available for the more recent murders, but the prosecution’s key witness, Brown, has suffered horrific trauma and a trial would’ve been difficult for her, Barnette said. Stalvey, her attorney, said she’s battling severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It took some time for the families to decide together they didn’t want to seek death, but once they did, Barnette drew up a contract that each family signed. It was read in court Friday and added stipulations to Kohlhepp’s plea to make his incarceration even more secure.
Barnette said he’s used the contract in six or eight significant cases over the years.
“I want to make sure there’s no questions about it,” he said. “This is about justice. This is about getting these victims what they want. They all wanted this. They wanted him to admit that he did this. They wanted him punished to the full extent that he could be.”
The victims also wanted Kohlhepp to admit in court that he had committed the Superbike murders to dissuade rumors that had circulated that he didn’t do it.
The agreement, Barnette said, was for these seven murders only. It wasn’t a deal in exchange for information, he said.
If Kohlhepp were ever found to have committed other murders, those cases would be tried separately and these convictions could be used in those cases, he said.
Barnette didn’t rule that out.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t more bodies to be honest with you,” Barnette said.
Asked Friday about other bodies, Kohlhepp's attorney Shane Gorenson said, "There are no other victims. Mr. Kohlhepp has come clean."
Kohlhepp, though, had made mention of others when he initially talked to law enforcement, Barnette said, “but he did not give any specifics.”
Kohlhepp was a pilot who flew to other parts of the country. Barnette mentioned Texas and also said investigators found more than 30 guns on his property. Authorities are checking those guns and shell casings for matches in other homicides across the country, Barnette said.
Brown, who did not attend the hearing because of her PTSD, is now focused on moving ahead, Stalvey said.
“She’s not going to let the actions of these particular events dictate how she will live for the rest of her life,” he said.
Stalvey said the case would be an “insignificant afterthought in her life.”
“Death of another human being gives her no satisfaction,” he said. “She said, ‘he’s the killer, not me.’”
Staff Writers Anna Lee and Nikie Mayo contributed.