Holmes pleads guilty in 1989 death

After 19 years and 2 overturned convictions, York man sentenced to life in prison for murder of school teacher

Toya GrahamJuly 12, 2008 

Bobby Lee Holmes gestures toward family members as he leaves the court room Saturday after pleading guilty to a 1989 murder.

MELISSA CHERRY • MCHERRY@HERALDONLINE.COM

YORK -- Mary Stewart's killer got a new lease on life Saturday, according to the York woman's grandson.

Bobby Lee Holmes Jr. ended 18 1/2 years of legal drama by pleading guilty to fatally beating the retired school teacher on Dec. 31, 1989. A judge on Saturday sentenced Holmes to two life sentences without parole plus 15 years during a York court hearing. The sentences will run concurrently.

Holmes had been twice convicted and sentenced to death, but both cases were overturned: The first by the S.C. Supreme Court, the second by the U.S. Supreme Court. A third trial was slated to begin Monday with jury selection.

Holmes had been on death row for 15 years.

"It is my hope that Bobby Holmes will take this opportunity to use this gift to better himself," said Stewart's grandson, Ken Stewart. "He has his life back. I hope he uses it well."

Last week, attorneys had been preparing for Holmes' third trial, which was slated to start Monday with jury selection. If convicted and sentenced to death a third time, Holmes could have spent another 10 years appealing -- a move that ultimately would have blocked closure for Stewart's family, Solicitor Kevin Brackett said.

"The family has been dealing with this for 18 years," Brackett said. "They couldn't get any closure. "They couldn't put this behind them. They had to go back to court again."

In May, Stewart's family and Brackett discussed the possibility of Holmes pleading guilty without the chance of parole.

"It didn't appear that he (Holmes) was interested," Brackett said. "But on (last) Thursday night, I got a call telling me that Mr. Holmes wanted to plead to life without parole."

Holmes' guilty plea led to Saturday's hearing, where Ken Stewart and wife, Dawn, did not have to listen to the brutal report of the attack on 86-year-old Mary Stewart.

"I am pleased with this result," Ken Stewart said. "It has restored my confidence in the components of the justice system."

Like Ken Stewart, York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant also was pleased that a third trial was not necessary.

"We have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Bryant, who worked the case nearly two decades ago as a SLED agent. "Enough is enough."

On the run

During the early morning hours of Dec. 31, 1989, Holmes previously testified he left his sister's Cannon Court area house after an argument, according to Herald archives. York police pursued Holmes for a public disorderly conduct charge, Brackett said.

"He ran and was able to elude police," Brackett said.

Officials said Holmes knocked on a door, where he requested and received some water before he stopped at another house about 300 yards away.

"She told him to go away," Brackett said of the house resident. "She never opened the door. Thank goodness."

Holmes continued running through York's streets and alleys toward California Street, where multiple people reported someone knocked on their doors between 3 and 6:30 a.m., according to Brackett and a report from York Police Department.

"Mrs. Stewart, unfortunately, was just the one who opened her door," former solicitor and prosecutor Tommy Pope said.

According to the report, Mary Stewart told police that a black man knocked on her apartment door. When she cracked the door to see who it was, he pushed the door open and forced his way in. The intruder pushed Stewart to a bedroom, where he raped and beat her in the head and chest area, Stewart told police.

The report also notes Stewart told the man to take her money but not to hurt her, and he left with $40. Later, a friend, who routinely checked on Stewart, called.

"She said, 'I'm in trouble over here,'" Brackett said Stewart told her friend. 'Somebody just beat me up and raped me.'"

Stewart remained conscious for about two hours after she arrived at a hospital -- long enough to give police a description of her attacker before slipping into a coma, Brackett said.

Meanwhile, another witness told police he had seen a black man, who wore acid-washed jeans and a black sweat jacket, on the sidewalk in front of Stewart's apartment, the report states. Police had a call earlier that morning in the Cannon Court area involving Bobby Lee Holmes Jr., who was wearing the same clothes, the report notes.

During the joint probe, police said they discovered Holmes, then 17, was involved in the larceny of two York cars and issued arrest warrants. Holmes was arrested about five hours later at his father's house, where officers watched him pull on a pair of acid wash jeans and found a shirt with blood on it, the report notes.

That same day, then York Police Capt. Bill Mobley found a palm print on the inside of the Stewart's front door, Brackett said. A SLED agent later matched that palm print to Holmes, and police charged Holmes with strong armed robbery, burglary, first degree, and assault and battery with intent to kill.

"The beating was so brutal that the brain surgeon, who operated on her, said the die was cast upon that beating," Deputy Solicitor Willy Thompson said. "It wasn't a matter of if she'd die. It was when."

Stewart, who taught at Jefferson Elementary School, died in March 1990, and police upgraded Holmes' charge of assault and battery to murder. In 1993, Holmes was convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. The state's highest court overturned that conviction in 1999 because Holmes was not told that both he and his attorneys could address the jury during the penalty phase of the trial.

Although a new trial was ordered, officials did not release Holmes because he was convicted on another charge while in prison. During Holmes' 2001 retrial, he told the court he was not the "violent animal" people made him out to be.

"I ran from the police because I didn't want to go to jail and break my promise to my mom," Holmes said about his flight the morning of Stewart's attack, according to Herald archives.

"I was a 17-year-old having fun," Holmes continued. "I'm guilty of disturbing the peace; I'm guilty of running from police; I'm guilty of drinking underage, but I did not commit this crime."

The 2001 retrial resulted in another conviction and death sentence. That conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue was evidence not allowed in court about another man's possible guilt. That decision set the stage for a retrial this month.

Until Holmes pleaded guilty Saturday.

Stewart's family did not address the court. Neither did Holmes' mother, Willie Mae Steel. And Holmes also declined to address the court as York Police Chief Bill Mobley looked on.

After court ended, Mobley reflected on Holmes' case.

"He told one of the officers that he was so drunk he coulda done it, but he didn't know," Mobley recalled.

Steel declined to comment after court, but attorney Jim Morton spoke briefly.

"It's been a long 18 1/2 years, and it will continue to be difficult for the victim's family and for Mr. Holmes and his family," Morton said. "We're glad his life was spared."

And the Stewart family was glad the long legal battle was finally over.

"Mary Stewart was an extraordinary individual," Ken Stewart said after court. "My family can continue to move forward and give honor to her legacy of excellence."

In an unrelated case, Holmes also received a 20-year-sentence on an assault and battery with intent to kill charge stemming from an incident in 1992 where Holmes hit an inmate with a metal bar and broke both of his arms.

Holmes remained in custody Saturday night at York County Detention Center. Sheriff Bryant said Holmes will be transferred to a state prison on Monday.

Toya Graham • 329-4062

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