Crime & Courts

Rossi Killer seeks freedom, for ninth time

For the ninth time in nine years, convicted killer Marcellus Pierce will go before the State Board of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services to seek freedom.

For the ninth time in nine years, relatives and friends of the young woman Pierce killed in 1984, Bobbi Rossi, will go before the board to urge he not be set free.

Ann Marie Rossi, Bobbi's mother, said she has petitions signed by thousands of Midlands residents asking the board to keep Pierce behind bars.

"I bring these petitions to the board because not only do I not want him free to wander the streets of South Carolina, I have family and friends and relatives all over the country who don't want him wandering their streets either," Rossi said.

Usually, she has at least 4,000 signatures, she said.

The hearing will be Jan. 6 at the board's Five Points offices. Pierce will appear via video from Kershaw Correctional Institution, the medium security prison where he is held.

In previous hearings, Pierce, now 62, has said he wants to go back to his home state of North Carolina and do construction work. Family members also have spoken on his behalf.

Bobbi Rossi's death shocked the Midlands, leaving many feeling that violent crime could strike anytime, anywhere. From a prominent family, she grew up in Shandon and went to Cardinal Newman.

Pierce and two other men kidnapped the 20-year-old University of South Carolina nursing student from Woodhill Mall on Garners Ferry Road - today the Shoppes at Woodhill. They took her to a rural area, raped her and shot her.

The three were arrested for the crime, tried and found guilty.

One, Willie Nesmith, died in prison. Another, Benjamin Joyner, is serving a life sentence and is not currently seeking parole.

All three were tried and convicted twice. In the first trial, they received the death penalty, and in the second, life sentences.

Pierce, who never testified at his trials, had a lengthy criminal record and was said to be the ringleader in the Rossi killing.

After the crime, Rossi's late father, Ray Rossi, crusaded successfully for stiffer sentencing laws.

Current Fifth Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese, an assistant and then-deputy solicitor at the times Pierce was tried, said he will be at the January hearing - just as he has for the past eight hearings.

"I plan on opposing parole, whether I'm solicitor or not, until he is dead or paroled, or I'm dead," said Giese, who called the case one of the worst he has ever handled.

"He received life in prison, and life ought to mean life."

At Pierce's first trial, a Richland County jury sentenced him to death. But the State Supreme Court overturned the death sentence, citing errors by the late Circuit Court Judge Tony Harris.

Harris had improperly told the defendants if they didn't testify, jurors would hold it against them. Such an instruction violates defendants' clear constitutional rights not to have a lack of testimony held against them.

"I can't tell you how angry I get at this every year," said Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, who for years has either written letters or gone in person to the parole board to argue against setting Pierce free.

Courson said Harris' mistake not only cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for a second trial, but the new trial - which resulted in a life sentence for Pierce - meant the Rossi family has to undergo the ordeal of reliving Bobbi's murder every year when Pierce tries to get set free.

"I don't think anything that has happened in our Judiciary in my 25 years in the Senate has angered me as much as that did," Courson said.

At Pierce's second trial, the jury deadlocked. That meant then-Judge John Hamilton Smith, now retired, had to sentence Pierce to life in prison.

Smith did, calling Pierce a "creature" whom he hoped would never leave prison.

Courson also has a personal reason to be concerned.

Back in the 1980s, Bobbi Rossi was a baby sitter for his family.

"Three of the Rossi girls were our baby sitters," Courson said. "They were delightful, delightful children."

Under an old state law, Pierce can get a parole hearing every year. The General Assembly has since changed that law, making convicted murderers ineligible for parole.