Crime & Courts

Rossi killer denied parole — for 9th time

Anne Marie Rossi laid a thick manila envelope on a long desk at which sat six stone-faced members of the state parole board Wednesday morning.

"For the record, there are 4,196 signatures in there," Rossi told the parole board.

All 4,196 signatures were from people saying the same thing - "We, the undersigned, wish to adamantly oppose" the parole request from Marcellus Pierce. Pierce is one of three men convicted in the brutal killing of Bobbi Rossi, Anne Marie's daughter, 25 years ago.

Minutes later, without discussion, the board announced its decision:

"Unanimously rejected," said chairman James Williams.

It was the ninth time in nine years that Pierce, now 62, whom law enforcement officials say is as brutal a killer as ever there was in South Carolina, sought parole.

And it was the ninth time his plea was quickly vetoed.

"The support from everybody is wonderful. It's just a shame we have to do this every year," Anne Marie Rossi said later.

The hearing was brief but emotional.

Rossi relatives and friends, as well as 5th Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese and Sen. John Courson, R-Richland and a family friend, appeared before the State Board of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.

Pierce appeared from prison via video conferencing on a television screen. He spoke first and briefly. He said he wanted to be paroled to North Carolina, where he could live with a relative and be supervised by that state's parole board.

"They said they would supervise my parole if you all grant parole," said Pierce, whose head was small on the large television screen.

Among the reasons the six board members - one member was absent - gave for their denial was the nature and seriousness of Pierce's crime.

In 1984, Pierce and two other men kidnapped Rossi, a 20-year-old University of South Carolina nursing student, in the afternoon from Woodhill Mall on Garners Ferry Road - today the Shoppes at Woodhill. They took her to a rural area, raped and shot her.

The case sparked a climate of fear across the Midlands. Rossi came from a large Columbia family with numerous relatives and friends. And her killing was the first of several terrible high-profile crimes against young women at the time by random killers.

In 1985, serial killer Larry Gene Bell kidnapped Shari Faye Smith, 17, from her Lexington County driveway and killed her. He then kidnapped Debra Helmick, 9, from her Richland County front yard and killed her. Bell was caught after the largest manhunt in state history. He was executed in 1996.

Besides Anne Marie Rossi, others made fervent pleas against Pierce's bid for freedom Wednesday.

"I pray to God you make the right choice today," Chuck Counts told the parole board just before it denied Pierce parole. Counts, now with the Newberry City Police Department, had worked the case as a Richland County sheriff's deputy in 1984. He told the board Pierce committed one of the worst crimes he'd seen in 34 years in law enforcement.

Rossi's father, Ray, who had become a leader in anti-crime initiatives in the state, died in 1999.

After the hearing, Counts - who processed the crime scene where Rossi's body was found in 1984 - said he wished he had told the board members more.

At Pierce's first trial, Counts recalled, a 12-person jury sentenced Pierce to death. That verdict was overturned because of what was later deemed a flippant remark by the trial judge, the late Anthony Harris.

At Pierce's second death-penalty trial, 11 of 12 jurors voted to give him death, Counts said. One dissent meant the trial judge had to give Pierce a life sentence. Pierce became eligible to seek parole in 2001.

The dissenting juror had "fallen apart" when Pierce's defense attorney, in his final argument, marched Pierce to face the jury, Counts said.

"What if this was Jesus Christ?" Counts quoted the lawyer as saying. "Are you going to crucify him again?"

Counts, still shaking his head over the tactic, said, "In two death-penalty trials, 23 of 24 people voted for the death penalty."

Giese said, "It's a shame the family has to go through this every year. I hate it for them."