Crime & Courts

Columbia man goes on trial for cemetery rampage that injured 12

Memories of being mowed down during funeral scar family members

James Kester was denied a reduction in bond after victims spoke in court about the July incident where Kester drove into a crowd gathered for a funeral
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James Kester was denied a reduction in bond after victims spoke in court about the July incident where Kester drove into a crowd gathered for a funeral

James Kester had a “vendetta” against the S.C. Department of Mental Health when he pushed down the accelerator of his Cadillac Seville in a cemetery crowded with mourners, a prosecutor told a Richland County jury Monday.

“You’ll hear about bodies of the victims flipping over the car, broken bones and screaming children left in the wake,” Sam McGlothin of the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s office told the jury on the first day of Kester’s trial.

Kester, 66, is charged with 12 counts of attempted murder. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison on each count.

“He (Kester) intended to kill them. He put that throttle down,” McGlothin said, adding Kester did not know any of the mourners.

All Kester knew was that the woman who just had been buried, Margaret “Peggy” Livingstone, was a longtime Department of Mental Health employee, McGlothin said.

In his opening statement, Kester, who is representing himself, acknowledged he had a longstanding grievance against the Department of Mental Health.

“They made up malicious lies against me,” Kester told the jury. One of those lies, he said, was that he had sexually abused his late daughter.

The Department of Mental Health used those lies to keep his daughter, then in eighth grade, confined for 600 days. When that time was up, “I didn’t have a child any more,” Kester said. “She was a vegetable. I have the records to show that.”

At the cemetery that day, in July 2017, “I didn’t intend to kill anybody,” Kester said. “I don’t know what happened. I blacked out or something.”

After the victims were struck in broad daylight at Greenlawn Memorial Park, the vehicle that Kester was driving came to a halt amid overturned tombstones. Police arrived on the scene and took Kester, who was still in the Cadillac, into custody. There are no other suspects.

In pretrial proceedings, Kester was deemed mentally competent to stand trial and to represent himself. He has two veteran “stand-by” lawyers, Columbia attorneys John Delgado and Bill Nettles, sitting behind him to help him if he has a question. Delgado and Nettles, a former U.S. attorney, were going to represent Kester, but he told them last week he wanted to be his own lawyer.

Prosecutors have said Kester learned about Livingston’s funeral by seeing her obituary in the newspaper.

Prosecutors said they could call as many as 30 witnesses or more during the trial, including more than 15 people who were at the cemetery when the attack happened.

In addition to multiple eyewitnesses, prosecutors said they have have analyzed the “black box” in the Cadillac, a device that records the vehicle’s speed, braking, and other pre-crash and crash data, and plan to present their findings to the jury.

Kester is expected to present to the jury the story of his travails with the Department of Mental Health.

Besides McGlothin, assistant solicitor Vance Eaton is trying the case. Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman is presiding.