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SC man on death row for parents’ double murder in 1997 still appeals

James Robertson holds his fingers to his ears to avoid hearing the death sentence during his 1999 trial in York.
James Robertson holds his fingers to his ears to avoid hearing the death sentence during his 1999 trial in York.

Twenty years ago, Terry and Earl Robertson were beaten and stabbed to death in their Rock Hill home. Their son, James Robertson was charged and convicted of the killings.

Robertson, known as “Jimmy,” has been on South Carolina’s death row for 18 years, since his 1999 conviction for double murder, armed robbery and credit card fraud.

Saturday, Nov. 25 is the 20th anniversary of the murders and subsequent arrest. The deaths, and the ensuing trial, captured the nation’s attention and continues to do so. This weekend, there will be a TV special focusing on the Rock Hill case.

Meanwhile, Robertson is not done with his appeals.

On Dec. 1, he will have a hearing on his latest attempt to get a new trial or his sentence overturned. State prosecutors with the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, and lawyers who took on Robertson’s case six years ago, are arguing whether Robertson’s should get a new trial because of errors in 1999 by his trial lawyers and by prosecutors.

“Justice is not fast, especially in capital cases,” said Colin Miller, a University of South Carolina law school professor and legal expert in criminal procedure and evidence. “The ‘CSI effect’ is people expect cases to be resolved, finalized, quickly. Reality is there are people who receive death sentences that never are executed. Most of them are never executed.”

South Carolina does not have enough lethal injection drugs to execute anyone. A planned execution of a convicted killer, set for Dec. 1, has been postponed.

Not a question of guilt

Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit Solicitor who prosecuted Robertson along with former prosecutor and current S.C. Rep. Tommy Pope, said there is no doubt that Robertson is guilty.

“The evidence against him remains completely overwhelming,” Brackett said.

Tim Hager was the York County Sheriff’s Office lead detective in the case, with now-retired Ralph Misle.

“There was no doubt whatsoever,” Hager said. “We knew within an hour of finding his parents, that Jimmy Robertson was a suspect.”

Robertson was seen by a neighbor leaving the home in his father’s car on that evening in November 1997, after another person found the bodies, Hager said. Police found that Robertson used his father’s credit card at a Fort Mill store, then in Virginia. Both times, Robertson was captured on video.

He was arrested the night of the killings in Pennsylvania, near where his brother was attending college.

“The police in Philadelphia were waiting for him to get there, and took him right then,” Hager said.

Robertson’s accomplice during the flight, his former girlfriend Meredith Moon, also was arrested. She told police where to find the bloody bat, hammer and knives that Robertson used used in the crime. The items were in an Interstate 95 trash bin in Maryland.

Twice in the past 15 years, Robertson has been on the cusp of being executed. Each time, he or his lawyers filed appeals that stopped the execution. In 2005, the appeal came after the S.C. Supreme Court had set an execution date. In 2011, a federal judge halted the execution until all state appeals can be finished.

“With the death penalty, courts recognize there is no chance to review the case if the person is executed,” Miller said. “Courts generally give a number of chances to review claims.”

Those reviews can take years, or decades.

“When it comes to the death penalty, everybody in the court system wants to be sure,” said Kenneth Gaines, a USC law professor and expert on criminal trials. “This is life and death....So the courts give death row inmates every opportunity to have their case looked at. You can’t undo death.”

Moon took a plea deal in exchange for testifying against Robertson, and has since been released from prison.

Two lawsuits

In an effort to avoid death, Robertson has two lawsuits pending. He’s now 44.

In York County civil court, Robertson has a lawsuit alleging that his trial lawyers in 1999 were ineffective, and that prosecutors used improper wording during some arguments. In federal court, Robertson has a lawsuit alleging that he has been held illegally for all these years.

The civil lawsuit in York County, called a post-conviction relief action, seemed to be resolved in 2011, when a judge ruled that Robertson had competent counsel during the 1999 trial.

But in 2016, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled the lawyer who represented Robertson in 2011 did not have the right death penalty post-conviction relief experience.

Lawyers from South Carolina’s Death Penalty Resource & Defense Center, including John Blume, Keir Wyble and Emily Paavola, became Robertson’s lawyers on both appeals. All three are veteran death penalty defense lawyers. Efforts to reach Blume, Weyble and Paavola were unsuccessful.

Judge Keith Kelly of Spartanburg has been assigned to Robertson’s appeal and hearings on Dec. 1, court documents show. The S.C. Attorney General’s Office is the state prosecutor in charge of trying to uphold Robertson’s sentence.

Miller said there is no timetable for when Robertson’s appeals could be exhausted.

That leaves police and prosecutors who put Robertson in prison waiting to see what happens.

Pope, who used to receive Christmas cards sent by Robertson, has repeatedly said the convicted man’s motives are to seek attention. He said Robertson received a fair trial.

TV show focuses on Robertson

The new season of the Oxygen Network show “Homicide for the Holidays” premieres at 6 p.m. Saturday and will focus on convicted killer James Robertson.

Interviewed for the show were 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett and the former solicitor, S.C. Rep. Tommy Pope. The two men prosecuted Robertson. Also interviewed were York County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Tim Hager and retired detective Ralph Misle.

The show also talked to Lyn Riddle, who wrote a book about the killings and trial. Andrew Dys, a reporter and columnist for The Herald who covered Robertson, also was interviewed.