Local

Solicitor finds solace in court

For 30 years, Donnie Myers has built a reputation as Lexington County's tobacco-chewing, take-no-prisoners prosecutor.

He has stared down serial killers on the witness stand and carried the nickname "Dr. Death" because of the 26 people he has put on Death Row since 1977. But not even Myers can stand the scrutiny of an empty house.

Every night he must return to 265 Mooring Lane and face the memories of finding his son and wife dead there, three years apart.

Myers performed CPR on his 29-year-old son, Chris, on Valentine's Day 2003. He couldn't save him.

In April, on his 61st birthday, Myers found his wife, Vance, collapsed on the bathroom floor after a night of shag dancing.

Myers' wounds heal in the courtroom. It's where the longest- serving solicitor in state history feels most at home.

The 11th Circuit solicitor's post used to be a job for Myers, something he had planned to retire from in 2003. But it has become a life raft.

"This is about all I've got," Myers said. "If I had to go home (and be) by myself, I would shoot my damn self."

'TOTALLY INSEPARABLE'

Myers' son, Donald Christian "Chris" Myers, was born in 1974 after doctors told Vance Myers she wouldn't have children. When Chris was 9, the Myerses found out he had mucopolysaccharidoses, a genetic condition that causes cell damage.

Over time, the disease affects appearance, physical abilities, organ function and mental development.

Most children with Chris' illness die before they reach adulthood, sometimes before their 10th birthday. But Chris was strong.

He followed Myers around the 11th Circuit's four counties. Before computers, state law required jurors' names be drawn out of a bin by a blind person or a child. Chris took the job and loved it.

"Totally inseparable," said Richard Breibart, a Lexington defense attorney and longtime friend of Myers, in describing the relationship between father and son. "(Donnie) used to wash his hair every morning."

After graduation, Chris Myers went to USC, where his parents made him live on campus. He graduated and went to work for state government, living at home.

"He was a wonderful kid," Myers said. "Independent, opinionated, smart. He was my best friend."

On Valentine's Day 2003, Myers found his son in his room struggling to breathe.

Myers took his son's death hard.

"It gives me chills talking about Donnie's devotion and loyalty and friendship to (his son)," said attorney Leigh Leventis, a friend of the Myers family. "It took Donnie getting back in the courtroom to help him to recover."

IN THE COURTROOM

Seven months after his son's death, Myers' office was preparing to prosecute Robert Northcutt, who had confessed to killing his 4-month-old daughter because she wouldn't stop crying.

For Myers, the case was an emotional land mine -- and he went all out to win it.

"After Chris died, I had a hard time, a hell of a hard time," Myers said. "I couldn't do anything for Chris, but I could do something for Brianna, the little girl that was killed. "So I did."

Myers snubbed the defense attorney by reading the sports section of The State newspaper when the attorney questioned witnesses. Myers bent a doll's back over a crib's rail to show jurors how Northcutt broke his daughter's back.

In his closing argument, he covered the crib with a black cloth and wheeled it past the jury box like a funeral procession. In the crib was a sheet that belonged to his son.

"He was always with me," Myers said, fighting back tears. "That was a way of keeping him close to me."

Myers cried at least 16 times during his closing argument, according to an appeal of the case filed with the state Supreme Court.

Northcutt's lawyer, David Bruck, said Myers was out of control. Bruck objected 20 times during Myers' argument, including when Myers said a life sentence would "declare open season on babies in Lexington County."

Myers' closing argument is the basis for the appeal.

The crib stunt is just one in a long list of Myers' courtroom theatrics. His arguments are part exposition, part theater.

"He's the last of the old school, chew-up-the-witness-box prosecutors," said Joe Savitz, who has argued against Myers for 25 years as the chief lawyer for the state Office of Appellate Defense.

For Joseph Ard, who was convicted in 1996 of killing a fetus, Myers introduced into evidence pictures of the fetus dressed for a funeral.

For Johnny Brewer, a man who represented himself in 1999 and won a life sentence, Myers drew pictures of Brewer being executed and left them on his table to try to fluster him.

"Donnie did some arguments that were really, really over the top," Savitz said. "And the judges would let him do that."

DR. DEATH

Myers saves most of his theatrics for the capital cases, because those normally are the only cases he tries.

He has a strict system that involves months of preparation by his staff. About two weeks before the trial, Myers swoops in and puts it all together.

At trial, his system works:

--* Myers has put 26 people on Death Row since 1977.

--* Because of reversals and retrials, Myers has prosecuted 40 death penalty trials in his career.

--* Of those cases, Myers has gotten the death sentence 34 times.

But on appeal, his system has flaws. Myers' critics say he has little to show for his trial prowess.

Since 1977:

--* Myers' convictions have been reversed 21 times by higher courts, four of them for improper closing arguments.

--* The reversals mean Myers has a backlog of nine pending death penalty cases, the most of any circuit. The circuit also has been criticized for an overall backlog of criminal cases.

--* Myers' time spent on death penalty cases has been a drain on court resources, critics say.

"He's so competitive and so driven to win at all costs that he frequently crosses the line," said John Blume, a Cornell University law professor and attorney who has argued and won against Myers in a death penalty case.

Myers says most of his reversals happen when the Supreme Court changes the rules after he has tried a case.

"They change the law all the time, and when you don't know what the law is and when you don't have any precedent, you just have to go forward, make up your mind and do something," he said.

Myers is annoyed with his "Dr. Death" reputation and said he hates prosecuting death penalty cases. But he does it, he said, because it's the right thing to do.

When the General Assembly reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Myers was the first solicitor in the state to seek it.

He had been solicitor for less than a year when he sought the death penalty against Larry Gilbert and J.D. Gleaton, half-brothers who robbed and killed Ralph Stoudamire, the owner of a South Congaree gas station.

Gilbert and Gleaton were sentenced by a jury to death. Both sentences were reversed -- twice. They were executed in 1998.

Myers didn't attend their executions. Of the four people put to death from his circuit, he has attended only one execution -- that of Larry Gene Bell.

Bell abducted and killed 9-yearold Debra May Helmick and 17- year-old Shari Faye Smith in the summer of 1985.

Bell called Smith's family members to tell them how Smith died. He allowed Smith to write out a will. He mailed it to her family after he wrapped Smith's head in duct tape, suffocating her.

"This is one that I carried a picture of the defendant in my wallet up until the date of execution," Myers said. Bell was executed in 1996, and Myers' close friends said he was there.

Myers just smiles, not owning up to anything. "They might be right," he said.

EMBARRASSED

By his own admission, Myers likes to drink and loves to party.

His drinking got him in trouble in 2005 when he was arrested for driving under the influence while attending a conference in Asheville, N.C.

He said his wife woke him up about 2 a.m. because she was in pain from her Crohn's disease. He had to go out to get her something to eat.

Myers said he had a few drinks that night, but doesn't remember how many. Officers found an open beer in his county-owned car, but Myers said it wasn't his and he didn't know who put it there.

Myers eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year's probation. The conviction embarrassed him.

"I felt like I did the right thing," he said about pleading guilty.

His conviction came after he was reprimanded by the state Supreme Court for mishandling the death penalty case of B.J. Quattlebaum.

In that case, Myers' No. 2 solicitor, Fran Humphries, listened in on a conversation between Quattlebaum and his attorney; Myers' office didn't disclose that to the court. That led to a criminal investigation and federal perjury trial.

Myers was investigated for ethical violations and faced losing his law license.

In 2003, he received a private reprimand and a letter of caution. He called it a "victory" because it didn't convict him of misconduct.

"I disagreed on how it was handled and the results," Myers said. "But I can't do anything about that. It's just something you face, like trying cases."

VANCE'S INFLUENCE

Myers met Vance Padgett at a dance while Myers was a defensive back on the USC football team. They married in 1967.

Myers said Vance made him go to law school so he could work with her father, a wealthy Gaffney attorney. He ended up working for state Attorney General Dan Mc- Cloud, and his first case was before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

It was a big step for a boy from Reevesville, a small community on I-95 across from St. George.

After leaving the attorney general's office, Myers decided to run for the State House in 1976.

But in June of that year, 11th Circuit Solicitor Phil Wingard went home to eat lunch during a trial and never came back. He died of a brain aneurysm.

Myers was familiar with the 11th Circuit's four counties from his days in the attorney general's office and thought it was a better move. He dropped out of the House race to run for solicitor.

Myers campaigned in Saluda, Edgefield and McCormick counties in a dirty blue Dodge truck with sideboards on the cab that read "Myers for solicitor" in red letters. Vance handled the Lexington County campaign.

He won -- and hasn't had a challenger since.

In Myers' 30 years as solicitor, Vance influenced many of his decisions. She had a law degree and did some law work on the side, but mostly she supported her husband.

He consulted her on every closing argument for every death penalty case.

She was a big part of the nicknames Myers likes to give to defendants, such as Johnny Bennett, a 6-foot-8, 300-pound man who did one-handed pushups during breaks in his trial. Bennett was convicted of stabbing a 5-foot-7, 140-pound man 70 times with a screwdriver. Myers' wife was reading a book at the time about someone having a bad day. So she suggested: "It was like running into King Kong on a bad day."

Myers and his wife gave generously to charities, including a $10,000 check to the Central Midlands Council of the American Diabetes Association, the largest single donation to that charity from an individual, council chairman Hobart Trotter said.

Myers' father-in-law died from complications of diabetes. His brother, Leon, had to have his foot amputated because of the disease.

Since Vance Myers' death, Myers has continued to give to the charity, including another $10,000 check this year. He said it's what his wife would have wanted.

COURTROOM THERAPY

Myers has thrown himself into his work. He still does the capital cases, but he also is trying some smaller cases, like a breach of trust case he plans to prosecute later this year.

His friends strive to keep him occupied. He goes fishing, sometimes three times a week. He even went to Venezuela last month to fish for blue marlin.

He went to Gainesville, Fla., Nov. 11 for the USC-Florida football game. A prosecutor in his office knows a music producer, and Myers went with them to Nashville Nov. 6 for the Country Music Association Awards.

"We all worry about his emotional well-being," Leventis said.

Tuesday night, at a dinner honoring Myers' 30 years in office, Myers thanked his friends and said he is "the richest man in the world."

He had to stop several times to blow his nose on a blue dinner napkin while the hundreds of people attending gave him a standing ovation.

But the courtroom keeps him going.

It's where he went after his son's death to prosecute Northcutt. It's where he went two weeks after his wife's death to prosecute Kevin Mercer, a Columbia man sentenced to death for killing an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Jackson.

He is never truly at home until he spits out his Red Man chewing tobacco, stands before the judge and puts on his game face for trial.

For Myers, there's no better therapy.

Reach Beam at (803) 771-8405.

Significant highs and lows in the 30-year career of 11th Circuit Solicitor Donnie Myers:

Birth of son, Chris

Wins first death sentence in South Carolina since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976

Death sentence for Larry Gene Bell, whose two murders terrorized the Midlands in the summer of 1985

Chris dies

Myers reprimanded by state Supreme Court for handling of a death penalty case in 1998

Donnie and Vance Myers nominated by the American Diabetes Association for 2005 Outstanding Philanthropist Award

Myers pleads guilty to driving under the influence in North Carolina. Receives suspended 60-day jail term, 12 months' unsupervised probation and $400 in fines, plus court costs

Wife, Vance, dies

Jury sentences

Kevin Jermaine Mercer to death, the 26th person sentenced to death in Myers' tenure

* * *

GIVING

Donnie Myers and his wife, Vance, donated to several charities, including:

--* The National Mucopolysaccharidoses Society (Myers' son had the genetic disorder.)

--* Dream Riders

--* American Heart Association

--* A.C. Flora girls volleyball team

--* A.C. Flora boys baseball team

--* National Ileitis and Colitis Association (Vance, who had Crohn's disease, helped establish the group's Columbia chapter.)

--* Rotary Foundation to Eradicate Polio in International Communities

--* American Diabetes Association (Vance's father died of diabetes two years ago, and Donnie's brother suffers from diabetes.)

  Comments