Crime & Courts

A look back at 10 notorious death penalty cases from the Midlands

Life or death? That’s the question a Lexington County jury will weigh and, eventually, decide after hearing arguments from attorneys as to whether Timothy Jones should spend the rest of his life in prison or die for killing his five children in 2014.

Jones was found guilty Tuesday on five counts of murder after a weeks-long trial, which now moves into the sentencing phase. If the jury decides that Jones should die for his crimes, it would be the first death sentence handed down by a South Carolina jury in more than five years.

As jurors prepare to hear testimony and decide Jones’ fate, The State took a look back through its archives at 10 notorious capital murder cases that shocked the Midlands area and beyond.

Mikal Deen Mahdi

On the run after fatally shooting a convenience store clerk in North Carolina in 2004, Mikal Deen Mahdi tried to hide out in a shed behind a Calhoun County home, but it was on the property of an Orangeburg police officer.

Mahdi pleaded guilty in 2006 to killing that officer — James Myers of the Orangeburg Department of Public Safety — on Myers’ Calhoun County farm in July 2004, shooting him nine times with a rifle. He then set fire to the officer’s body and the shed using diesel fuel.

After the killing, Mahdi stole Myers’ police-issued pickup and was arrested days later when the truck was spotted in Florida, The Associated Press reported. It was the end of a multi-state crime spree that included the shooting death of a convenience store clerk in North Carolina a week before Myers’ murder.

Before sentencing Mahdi to death, Judge Clifton Newman said he tried to strike a balance between justice and mercy by looking for the humanity in the people who stood before him charged with crimes.

“That sense of humanity seems (to) not exist in Mikal Deen Mahdi,” he said, according to The Associated Press.

Quincy Jovan Allen

Quincy Jovan Allen was sentenced to death after pleading guilty to four murders he committed in the summer of 2002, including in Richland County — all while under the delusion that he could get a job as a Mafia hit man.

In Richland County, Allen was charged with two shotgun killings.

On July 10, 2002, Dale Hale was shot repeatedly in a remote area on Oakway Drive, which is just off Trenholm Road and Interstate 77 in Columbia. Her body was doused with gasoline and set on fire. A month later, on Aug. 8, 2002, Jedediah Harr was shot and killed with a shotgun in his car outside a Two Notch Road restaurant during a confrontation between Allen and Harr’s friend.

Before the murderous spree, Allen shot a 51-year-old homeless man, who was sitting on a bench in Columbia’s Finlay Park, as target practice to learn how to shoot the shotgun. That victim survived.

Allen pleaded guilty to the Richland County charges and was sentenced to death by a judge in 2005. Deputies had to swarm the third floor of the Richland County courthouse to separate relatives of Allen and his victims, who exchanged heated words outside the courtroom during a break.

“He enjoyed watching those people die,” Solicitor Barney Giese said during closing arguments.

Allen’s death sentence was the first in Richland County in 10 years. The S.C. Supreme Court in 2009 upheld his sentence, noting, “He told police he began killing people because an inmate in federal prison, where Allen spent time for stealing a vehicle, had told him he could get him a job as a Mafia hit man.”

During that same two-month crime spree, Allen killed two men in North Carolina, and received two life sentences after pleading guilty to those killings.

Joseph Carl Shaw, James Terry Roach

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty, Joseph Carl Shaw and James Terry Roach were the first South Carolina inmates to be executed for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and the murder of her boyfriend in October 1977.

Carlotta Hartness, 14, went missing after she had ridden to Camden with her friend, 17-year-old Tommy Taylor, to work on a school project.

Taylor’s body was found slumped over the wheel of his father’s car in Polo Road Park, near Interstate 20. He had been shot in the face, robbed and left dead in the car. Hartness’ body was found hours later in some woods near the Pontiac exit off I-20. She had been raped, shot in the back of the head and mutilated.

Another woman, Betty Swank, 21, had been raped and killed in the same area 12 days earlier. Her husband worked at Fort Jackson with Shaw. Ballistics tests revealed matches between the bullets that killed all three victims.

Shaw, a former military policeman, and Roach pleaded guilty to the crimes, and a judge sentenced them to death. A third defendant, Ronald Mahaffey, was 16 at the time of the crimes. He testified against the others and was sentenced to life in prison.

A fourth man, Robert Neil Williams, was involved in Swank’s killing. In 1978, prosecutors agreed not to seek a second death sentence against the defendants if they pleaded guilty to the murder of Betty Swank. All four pleaded guilty and were sentenced to life in prison.

Mahaffey testified that after Carlotta was raped, she pleaded for her life. Shaw drew a circle in the dirt with an “X” in the middle and ordered her to put her head down. Then, she was shot. Accounts differed as to who pulled the trigger, with Roach saying Shaw fired the gun and Shaw saying Roach fired the shots.

Shaw was executed by electric chair in January 1985. Roach was executed a year later.

The execution of Roach, who was 17 at the time of the murders, was controversial because of claims that Roach was mentally disabled and dominated by an older criminal at the time of the killings. Then-state law allowed juveniles 17 and under charged with murder to be tried and punished as adults, with consent from the presiding family court judge and an order from the circuit court.

Mother Teresa and the United Nations also made requests for Roach’s life to be spared.

Before his execution in 1986, Roach told a reporter he learned to write and spell while on death row.

“When I come in here, I couldn’t write a letter home,” he said at the time. “I couldn’t hardly write my name. Now I can read a little bit better, and I can write a letter home that they can read.”

Robert Northcutt

Since beating his 4-month-old daughter to death in 2001, Robert Northcutt has been sentenced to death not once but twice.

A Lexington County jury first found Northcutt guilty in the murder of infant Breanna in 2003, with evidence in the trial showing that Northcutt beat the baby to death because she wouldn’t stop crying.

Defense attorney David Bruck told jurors Northcutt, a 20-year-old new father at the time, never intended to hurt Breanna, “the little baby he loved probably more than anything else on this earth.”

A 4-month-old Breanna Nicole is shown in this family photograph. Breanna was killed at her Platt Springs Road home in January 2001. Her father, Robert Northcutt, is facing a resentencing in his case. An earlier capital sentence was revoked.

But Solicitor Donnie Myers said Northcutt planned the killing, which Myers called “pure evil.”

The S.C. Supreme Court upheld the guilty conviction in 2007 but ruled that comments Myers made to the jury during closing arguments in the 2003 trial were unconstitutional.

Myers — known for his legendary theatrics in the courtroom — wheeled out the little girl’s crib and draped a black shroud over it. He hung a doll over the edge of the crib to show how the baby’s back had been broken and staged a funeral procession around the courtroom. Myers, who was known as “Dr. Death” for the number of men he sent to death row, told jurors that returning anything less than a death sentence for Northcutt would “declare open season on babies in Lexington County.”

After a new sentencing hearing in 2009, Circuit Court Judge James Williams again sentenced Northcutt to death. During a proceeding last July to reconsider Northcutt’s second death sentence, 11th Circuit Solicitor Rick Hubbard said he would recuse his office from the case, which has since been turned over to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office for prosecution or assignment to a different solicitor’s office.

Northcutt remains on death row.

northcutt, himself.JPG
Robert Northcutt, then 23, during his 2003 death penalty trial in Lexington County. Next to Northcutt are his defense attorneys, from left, Robert Lominack and David Bruck. Takaaki Iwabu The State

Willie Nesmith, Benjamin Joyner, Marcellus Pierce

Marcellus Pierce was sentenced to death by a Richland County jury, and was nearly sentenced to death again in a retrial for the brutal 1984 rape and murder of University of South Carolina student Bobbi Rossi.

Pierce and two other men — Willie Nesmith and Benjamin Joyner — kidnapped the 20-year-old nursing student at gunpoint from Woodhill Mall on Garners Ferry Road in September 1984, which today is the Shoppes at Woodhill. They took her to a rural area, raped her repeatedly and then shot her.

All three men were tried and convicted in 1984. A jury sentenced Pierce to death, while Joyner and Nesmith were given life terms. Pierce and Joyner appealed their convictions, and the S.C. Supreme Court granted them new trials, citing mistakes by the judge. Both were sentenced to life in prison in their second trials.

Prosecutors said Pierce, who has a lengthy criminal record, was the ring leader in Rossi’s killing. Under an old state law, he has been eligible for parole each year since 2001. Current state law now bans parole for convicted murderers.

Nesmith and Joyner died in prison.

Pierce, now 71, has been turned down 16 times by the state’s parole board, according to Peter O’Boyle, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.

For Pierce’s parole hearing in 2010, Ann Marie Rossi showed up with a petition signed by thousands of people opposing parole for her daughter’s killer.

“I plan on opposing parole, whether I’m solicitor or not, until he is dead or paroled, or I’m dead,” former Fifth Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese, who was an assistant and then deputy solicitor when Pierce was tried, said in 2010. “He received life in prison, and life ought to mean life.”

Pierce’s next parole hearing is scheduled for August.

Larry Gene Bell

Before Larry Gene Bell raped and killed Shari Smith in 1985, he forced the 17-year-old to write a “last will and testament” letter to her family. After her killing, Bell made a series of chilling and taunting phone calls to her family and law enforcement, first leading them to believe Smith was still alive, then giving them details about how he raped and killed her, eventually telling them where to find her body.

Smith had just returned home from a pool party when she was kidnapped at gunpoint on May 31, 1985, as she checked the mailbox outside her family’s home on Platt Springs Road in Lexington County. She was two days from her Lexington High School graduation.

Two weeks later, 9-year-old Debra Mae Helmick was abducted from her family’s front yard on Old Percival Road near Fort Jackson, while she played with her 3-year-old brother.

Debra May Helmick, 9, left, was abducted from outside her family’s Richland County home and killed in 1985, less than two weeks after 17-year-old Shari Faye Smith was kidnapped from outside her family’s Red Bank home and killed. Larry Gene Bell, who made taunting phone calls to Smith’s family in the days after her disappearance, was later convicted and executed for the killings. File photos

Smith’s body was found in Saluda County; Helmick’s body was found in the Gilbert area of Lexington County.

The letter that Smith wrote to her family before she was killed became a key piece of evidence. On the same legal pad that Smith used was a telephone number that someone had written. The indented imprint of that number, and imprints of some other notes, were deciphered in a State Law Enforcement Division lab. The phone number eventually led investigators to the home where Bell had taken the teenager girl after kidnapping her; Bell had done some electrical and plumbing work for the owners, who asked him to feed their animals and take care of their house while they went on an extended vacation.

In a 1986 trial that was moved to Berkeley County because of the amount of pre-trial publicity, Bell was convicted and sentenced to death for Smith’s murder. A year later, he was convicted and sentenced to death a second time for Helmick’s murder, with that trial being held in Pickens County.

Outside the Berkeley County courthouse after Bell’s 1986 trial, a reporter asked Lexington County Sheriff James Metts what led the arresting officers to Bell.

“The last will and testament,” Metts said. “Shari Smith solved her own murder.”

Bell never said why he committed the murders, and took a vow of silence leading up to his execution on Oct. 4, 1996. An electrician, Bell had delusions about seeing Jesus Christ. He rejected lethal injection and opted to be executed in the electric chair, telling mental health doctors that the chair’s 2,000 volts of electricity would allow him to ascend to God’s throne.

larry gene bell trial.JPG
Larry Gene Bell, left, arrives at the Berkeley County courthouse on Feb.11, 1986, where jury selection began in his trial on charges of murder and kidnapping in the slaying Shari Faye Smith. Bell wore a circular paper clipped to his shirt that read, “I am the victim Larry Gene Bell . I am innocent.” File photo/AP

Robert South

Officer Daniel Cogburn joined the West Columbia Police Department just four days before he was gunned down April 12, 1983, while writing a ticket in his patrol car.

Evidence presented during trial for Robert South showed that South mistook Cogburn for another officer when he drove up to Cogburn’s patrol car on Ninth Street in West Columbia. He fired a shot from an M-1 carbine that pierced the 29-year-old officer’s heart.

Cogburn’s widow was nine months pregnant with their third child at the time of his murder. She gave birth 17 days after he was killed.

It was the first time a South Carolina jury had imposed the death penalty on a cop killer since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. South was found guilty by a Lexington County jury in November 1983 and executed by lethal injection in May 1996.

Even leading up to his execution, South never said why he killed Cogburn. A psychiatrist who testified during South’s appeals, which he dropped in 1995, said a brain tumor along with drug and alcohol abuse made South insane when he shot the officer.

One of the jurors that convicted and sentenced South to death said the jury agreed with prosecutors’ statements that South shot Cogburn because he mistook him for another officer who closely resembled Cogburn.

“We struggled long and hard to reach it. He was just very violent,’‘ the juror told The State in 1996 of their decision on punishment. “I’m so sorry that this has to be done. But I do believe in capital punishment and would vote the same way again.’‘

Hastings Wise

Before Hastings Wise stormed into the Aiken plant where he formerly worked, killing four people and injuring three others in a September 1997 shooting, he waited for a shift change to make sure that everyone who either was involved in his firing or took jobs that he wanted would be there.

After shooting a security guard near the entrance of the R.E. Phelon plant in Aiken on Sept. 15, 1997, Wise, then 43, cut the phone lines and proceeded into the plant, where he fatally shot four people and injured two more. Wise tried to kill himself after the carnage by swallowing pesticide in an office; however, he was taken to a hospital, where he recovered enough to be transferred to jail to await trial.

In a 2001 trial that was moved to Beaufort County because of the amount of pretrial publicity the case received in Aiken, a jury convicted Wise on all charges and sentenced him to death. Wise refused to let defense attorneys call any witnesses during his trial and waived all attempts at appeals after he was sentenced to death, according to The Associated Press.

“At almost every opportunity, he has expressed his wish to die,” Wise’s attorney Joseph Savitz said before his execution in November 2005, according to The Associated Press. “Once you get someone who’s convinced they want to die, it’s difficult to change their minds.”

The Phelon shooting was tragically significant because it happened almost a year to the day after another workplace shooting in Aiken County. On Sept. 16, 1996, David Mark Hill walked into the North Augusta Department of Social Services office and opened fire, killing three people. Hill, who was upset over losing custody of his children before the shooting, was convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2008.

Ron Finklea

Facing the death penalty for shooting a security guard twice in the head and setting him on fire during a deadly robbery attempt, Ron O’Neal Finklea begged a Lexington County jury for his life.

“I’m asking you to look at me. Ron,” Finklea, who had no prior criminal record before the killing, told jurors during his 2007 trial. “Not the individual the state has painted. Me. And spare my life — please, please.”

On Aug. 2, 2003, Finklea shot Walter Sykes Sr., a security guard at a Lexington County electronics plant, during an attempt to rob an ATM at the plant, testimony showed. He then doused Sykes’ body with gasoline and set him on fire.

Security footage showed Sykes running out of the Solectron electronics plant, his body in flames, and collapsing on the lawn.

During closing arguments, Solicitor Donnie Myers questioned Finklea’s claims of amnesia from a suicide attempt several days after his arrest. Myers delivered his final words to the jury in front of a mannequin that wore Sykes’ burned and blood-stained uniform.

“He turned this good man into this charred body,” Myers said.

The S.C. Supreme Court upheld Finklea’s death sentence in 2010, and he remains on death row. Finklea’s brother-in-law and codefendant in the killing was found guilty of murder in 2008 and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Donald ‘Pee-Wee’ Gaskins

Convicted of nine murders and suspected in many more, Donald “Pee-Wee” Gaskins was serving multiple life sentences when he blew apart a fellow prison inmate using a homemade explosive device inside Central Correctional Institution in 1982. And it was that murder that got him sent to South Carolina’s electric chair.

Evidence revealed that a Murrells Inlet man, Richard Anthony “Tony” Cimo, asked Gaskins to kill Tyner to avenge the killings of Cimo’s parents during the armed robbery of their store in Horry County.

After a six-week trial, a Richland County jury took only an hour to return a death sentence for Gaskins in Tyner’s murder.

Gaskins had previously been sentenced to death in 1976 for the murder of Charleston carpenter Dennis Bellamy a year earlier; however, that sentence was commuted to life in prison when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned South Carolina’s death statute in 1976.

Among Gaskins’ murders over the years were the killings of his niece and her friend; the poisoning of the woman who supplied drugs to the girls; and the drowning of a 2-year-old girl and her pregnant mother because the woman was involved in an interracial relationship.

Even after Gaskins was sentenced to death, in the days leading up to his execution, authorities uncovered a scheme by Gaskins to kidnap the daughter of Dick Harpootlian, one of the prosecutors who put him on death row.

“Everybody was scared of Pee Wee because he was smarter than everyone else and had complete access to the cell block,” Harpootlian said in 1991 before Gaskins’ execution. “He’s totally amoral, and that’s what makes him the most dangerous kind of killer.”