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Opinion: Lessons from covering SC killers: Pee Wee Gaskins, Dylann Roof and Tim Jones

Who are South Carolina’s worst killers in the last 50 years?

Three stand out from the rest: murderer Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins, whose victims included a baby, young men and women and older men; white supremacist Dylann Roof who killed African-Americans men and women at church and recently convicted killer Tim Jones Jr. , who strangled his own children to death.

All 37 people currently on South Carolina’s death row have been convicted of only one or two killings. Meanwhile, Gaskins killed at least a dozen or more — no one has the exact count. Roof killed nine. Jones killed his five children, ages 1-8.

As a reporter, I covered the death penalty trials of Gaskins, Roof and Jones — a true front row seat to evil. For weeks at each trial, I took notes and tried to stifle my gasps as I listened to minute details of their crimes.

Which do I think is the worst? Why? What lessons can we learn?

For starters, Gaskins, Roof and Jones are all the worst — the “worst of the worst,” as lawyers say. Once a certain threshold is crossed, comparisons are worth little.

In striking ways though, Gaskins, Roof and Jones differed. So did their motives and victims.

Gaskins, a 124-pound assassin whose height was about 5’2”, had a falsetto voice and chirpy personality. Before the law caught up with him, he drove around in a hearse and had his private graveyard in rural Florence County where he buried victims.

Aside “from his propensity for committing murder, Pee Wee was a typical good ol’ boy .... Unusually clever, he had a great sense of humor and a devil-may-care attitude,” wrote John Griffin, a University of South Carolina-Lancaster professor who wrote an authoritative biography of Gaskins.

Gaskins just loved to kill, said Columbia attorney and Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, one of the prosecutors who put Gaskins in the electric chair in 1991.

Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins, serial murderer from Prospect, S.C. FILE

Gaskins killed people he didn’t like, who irked him and who he wanted to rape or rob. He killed with a gun, with poison, with a knife, by downing and beating. Most of his victims came from the lower social-economic strata and weren’t missed. Nearly all his killings were done in the early or mid-1970s, a stretch of time when South Carolina’s death penalty had been ruled unconstitutional.

When he was finally caught, authorities gave Gaskins multiple life sentences, and in the late 1970s, put him where they thought he could never kill again — in the supposedly secure Cell Block 2, which housed the state’s growing death row in a now-demolished prison in downtown Columbia.

In Cell Block 2, Gaskins rose to be the unit’s convict boss, someone whom guards trusted and “who did everything but grow soybeans,” as former Richland County prosecutor, the late Jim Anders, once put it.

In 1982, Gaskins began plotting with an Horry County vigilante to kill one of the condemned killers on death row, Rudolph Tyner, who had killed two shopkeepers near Murrells Inlet. The vigilante didn’t like the fact that the killer’s death sentence was being slowed by appeals and smuggled some plastic explosives hidden in a radio into the prison.

One Sunday afternoon in 1982, a bomb blew up in Tyner’s cell, killing him.

Detective work traced the assassination to Gaskins. Evidence included a surreptitious tape recording Gaskins had made with the vigilante. Gaskins was arrested, put on trial in Richland County and given the death penalty. He was executed in 1991.

After his conviction, Gaskins used to phone me from time to time from death row. “Hi, Mr. Monk!” he would say in an excited, cheerful voice. He would tell me how he’d been framed and how much he didn’t like his prosecutors, Harpootlian and Anders.

During those calls, I was always glad that several miles and many feet of concrete and barbed wire lay between Gaskins and me.

Roof wanted a race war

While Gaskins killed for the thrill, Roof, a Columbia native, was a different story.

The product of a broken family, Roof, a loner, delved into drugs as a young teen at Hand Middle School. Starting at the age of 19 or 20, he began frequenting vicious anti-black, anti-Jewish internet sites and “self-radicalized” himself into believing that he could save American’s white race by starting a race war. Like many of today’s neo-Nazis, Roof worshipped the Confederacy and its slave-owning society, as well as the Confederate flag, which at that time flew from one of the most prominent public sites in South Carolina — the front of the State House.

Roof believed if he killed a large number of innocent black people — the more innocent, the better — he could start his race war and make America a white supremacist country. As he turned 21, he bought a Glock pistol, extra magazines and bullets. He practiced shooting targets on the ground to become accomplished at finishing off people who were only wounded.

Dylann Roof File photo

On June 17, 2015, Roof drove from Columbia to Mother Emanuel African American Methodist Church in Charleston, a renowned historic African American spot he had scoped out and meticulously selected. After attending a night Bible study, he pulled out his Glock and killed nine, starting with its beloved pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator representing Jasper County. Roof wounded three others.

Arrested in North Carolina a little more than 24 hours after the massacre, Roof proudly told the FBI in a videotaped interview what he had done and why. It was perhaps the most chilling recital of a horrific crime I’ve ever heard. Roof’s lack of empathy, sympathy or any feeling at all for his victims reminded me of Holocaust accounts I’ve read of homicidal Nazis, who nonchalantly directed their Jewish victims toward the ovens.

Apart from Roof’s evil — I have to call it evil, there is no other word — one supremely noble moment stands out for me in the Roof trial.

One of the Emanuel survivors, Polly Sheppard, told the jury how she lay under a table, knowing that Roof was killing her friends, one by one that night. As he killed, she prayed. As he was leaving, Roof told Sheppard he was leaving her alive so she could tell others what happened.

She had been in the presence of a monster and was now bearing witness to the horror. People in the courtroom were crying, in awe, I think, at the great strength she showed in telling her tale.

When prosecutor Jay Richardson had finished, Roof’s defense attorney, David Bruck, stood. He walked toward her. “I’m so sorry,” Bruck said gently. “I have no questions.”

When Sheppard got down — a woman in her 70s — she walked slowly, choking back tears. All at once, almost everyone in the courtroom came to their feet, standing in a shared, silent recognition they had witnessed something special: a woman who had faced down a great evil and bravely told truths about that evil. The world needed to hear it.

In January, 2017, it took a federal jury in Charleston only a few hours to sentence Roof to death. In a brief statement to jurors before they began deliberating, Roof showed no remorse and indicated he might do the same thing again. Today, Roof is on the federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he awaits execution pending appeals.

Jones ... a nightmare of horror

Then there is Jones, whose execution-style killings of his five children have been covered in the media extensively in recent weeks. A Lexington County jury took less than two hours to come back with a death penalty sentence.

I don’t know which was more horrific — listening to Roof tell how he killed his victims or hearing Jones’ taped confession in his agonized voice. It was the stuff of nightmares, hearing a father talk about strangling innocent little children — “five treasures,” as prosecutor Rick Hubbard called them.

Timothy Jones, Jr. 5/15/19 Tracy Glantz tglantz@thestate.com

Evidence in the trial indicated Jones had severe mental issues, but not severe enough for the jury to deem him “not guilty by reason of insanity” or “guilty but mentally ill.”

Most condemned killers in South Carolina don’t come anywhere near the level of the crimes committed by Gaskins, Roof and Jones. Many are like Jerome Jenkins, a thief who killed two people in separate convenience store robberies. Jenkins was sentenced to death by an Horry County jury in May.

Controversy over death penalty

For years, the death penalty has been dogged by increasing controversy.

Critics charge that the cost of putting on a death penalty trial, and years of appeals, can be far more expensive than keeping someone in a highly secure prison on a life-without-parole sentence. Numerous people sentenced to death have been found innocent through DNA analysis or new evidence. (No one suggests Gaskins, Roof or Jones are innocent.)

Critics also say there’s a randomness to the death penalty, that it is not equally applied. Someone who commits a double murder in a state where there is no death penalty will serve a life without parole sentence, while in South Carolina, that same defendant might undergo a death penalty trial, depending on what county that person is in.

Another argument for the death penalty is that it is a deterrent.

“There is no evidence that the death penalty deters . . . . It is steeped in caprice, arbitrariness and racial bias,” wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in an investigative report earlier this month.

Although South Carolina has had a robust death penalty for years, people keep committing horrendous murders.

I’ve seen just a couple societal benefits come from these high-profile cases..

Outrage over Roof’s obvious devotion to the Confederate flag — he had made a pilgrimage to the State House were that flag flew — led to then-Gov. Nikki Haley getting the S.C. General Assembly to remove the Confederate flag from State House grounds. For years, it had been an open sore in the state’s political and social life.

And the example of forgiveness, courage and grace shown by many of the Emanuel victims and survivors radiated around the world and was magnified by President Obama’s visit to Charleston and funeral oration shortly after the killings.

What have I personally learned covering such terrible trials?

I’m supremely grateful for the loving relationships I have and do my best to keep them up.

I’m aware that just about all the killers I’ve watched in murder trials — including Gaskins, Roof and Jones — come from terrible backgrounds. I know that many people rise above the circumstances into which they are born, but others can’t. If they were twisted by their environment and family, is it fair to give them the death penalty? It is legal, but is it fair?

I’m more attentive to the situations I find myself in. Gaskins, Roof and Jones were all thought to be normal — the kind of people you might see at a McDonald’s — before they killed.

The one good thing about death penalty trials is the amount of evidence that is made public. Hearings where a killer admits guilt and is then sentenced are normally skimpy on details of the crime.

Most of all, I’m appreciative of our American system of justice, one which, for all its flaws, is evidence-based, transparent and accountable to the public. Judges, prosecutors and lawyers I’ve seen are among South Carolina’s best. The dedicated lawyers who defend killers like Gaskins, Roof and Jones will tell you they are defending the Constitution. They are making sure that if the state takes the irrevocable step of putting someone to death, that it is done legally.

Some people criticize our death penalty for being too slow once a death sentence is pronounced, a sentence usually followed by years and even decades of appeals.

When I hear this criticism, I remind myself there are places where death sentences are carried out quickly, places like North Korea and Saudi Arabia. Is that what we want?