A Columbia man was sentenced to life without parole Monday, after pleading guilty in the brutal 2007 slayings of a mother and her 9-year-old daughter.
Julian Rashad Whatley, 30, pleaded guilty to more than a dozen charges, including two counts of murder in the burning deaths of Crystal Ferguson, 45, and her daughter, Hilliary Wright, in a Richland County courtroom Monday.
With the guilty plea, Whatley avoided a death penalty trial, which had been scheduled to start the same day.
After more than an hour listening to testimony, including victims’ family members and Whatley’s adoptive mother, Judge G. Thomas Cooper handed down the maximum sentence for all charges, saying there wasn’t much he could say about the “most heinous of ... crimes.”
“You will not enjoy the remainder of your life,” Cooper said, adding that he “just hoped” Whatley woke up each day and thought about what he had done to the victims.
Whatley was accused of setting fire to Ferguson’s mobile home on May 5, 2007, while she and her daughter slept.
DNA evidence also linked Whatley to two other sexual assaults in Richland County around the time of the fire deaths. Those cases, too, were part of Monday’s guilty plea.
In court Monday, Ferguson’s family and friends sobbed as Solicitor Dan Johnson recounted the day the mother and her daughter were killed.
Among them was a third victim who was asleep at the home during the fire. That victim survived, only to be dragged outside and sexually assaulted by Whatley, Johnson said.
That witness spoke at Monday’s sentencing and would have been a key witness had the case become a death penalty trial. The State newspaper does not routinely name victims of sexual assault.
Whatley also pleaded guilty to three counts of first degree criminal sexual assault and three counts of kidnapping, among other charges, in addition to the two murder charges.
Several of Ferguson’s family members also spoke during the sentencing, including her sister Lisa Lewis.
“You have hurt many and you will have to live with your conscience,” Lewis said. “And you will have to answer to God.”
Ferguson’s daughter, Virginia Ferguson, who was 15 and attending an ROTC camp when her mother and stepsister were killed, related how there would never again be birthdays or celebrations with them.
“There are not words to say the damage he’s done in my life,” she said.
Whatley, who was subdued during Monday’s sentencing, had written a letter to his victims to be shared in court but was too nervous to read it, a member of his defense team said.
“I know my words don’t mean nothing to the victims in this court,” Whatley said in a brief statement after pleading guilty. “But I’m sorry, sorry, sorry.”
Whatley will serve the dozen sentences, including life without parole for two counts of murder, consecutively.