Murder mystery grips SC: Is Irmo bookie guilty of two counts of murder?

nophillips@thestate.comMay 27, 2013 

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— As soon as today, a jury will be sent from Courtroom 2A at the Richland County Judicial Complex to deliberate in the Midlands’ biggest whodunit in years.

Their decision hangs on the essential question in the case: Who shot and killed Tammy Jo Parker?

Her husband, Irmo bookie Brett Parker, is facing two murder charges in her death and that of his sports betting clerk, Bryan Capnerhurst.

Parker says that Capnerhurst killed his wife, and that he then killed Capnerhurst in self defense. Investigators and prosecutors say Parker, desperate to escape mounting debt and a failing marriage, killed them both and is trying to frame Capnerhurst.

Parker is a gambler himself and owed Capnerhurst – and many others – thousands of dollars. His father had bailed him out of debt once before. This time, his wife’s life-insurance policy would have taken care of his problems, prosecutors say.

But the trial has become more than a murder mystery. It has become as fascinating as any television crime drama.

It has become a tale of families, of illicit affairs, of alleged jury meddling and of Parker’s midday trip to a hospital in an ambulance.

And it has pulled back the curtain on the shady world of sports gambling in South Carolina.

The bookies work under a code of silence, but now their names have been spoken aloud in court.

Brett Parker, his father, Jack Parker, and a third man, Douglas E. Taylor, are expected to stand trial in July on federal gambling charges. Nearly two dozen others already have pleaded guilty to state and federal charges.

Unexpected drama

During jury selection, Judge DeAndrea Benjamin scolded the Parker family after an aunt of Brett Parker approached a potential juror.

On the morning the testimony was to begin, two jurors sent a note to Benjamin, saying someone had spoken to them about whether they would be sequestered. The jurors, questioned in the judge’s chambers, described a man who looked like the defendant’s father.

Though Jack Parker denied contact with jurors, Benjamin banned him from the courthouse for the duration of the trial. Benjamin stuck with her decision despite defense attorneys’ protests, telling them she would not hold a hearing that pitted two jurors against a potential defense witness.

Since then, Parker’s family and friends have taken extensive notes during the trial and have called Jack Parker with updates during breaks.

But the drama hasn’t stopped there.

On May 16, the trial came to a sudden halt when Brett Parker had to be taken in an ambulance to a hospital after suffering shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate. At the time, county medical examiner Bradley Marcus was on the stand, discussing his autopsy report on Tammy Parker.

Marcus was telling jurors the order of the five shots that had been fired into Tammy Parker’s body and the damage they had inflicted.

Brett Parker began sobbing. When one of his attorneys, Marc Whitlark, approached Benjamin about his client’s condition, she sent the jurors from the room and asked court deputies to call EMS.

As the jury left, Parker began mumbling, with the only word distinguishable: “Tammy.” Parker walked out of the courtroom, stumbling on a small set of stairs in full view of television cameras.

Medics put him on a stretcher and loaded him into an ambulance, with photographers and cameramen documenting every moment.

The families

The toll of a month-long trial is evident on the faces of those who loved Tammy Jo Parker and Bryan Capnerhurst.

Tears flow at some point almost every day.

The victims’ families are recognizable by the blue blouses, shirts and sweaters they wear as a sign of unity. Tammy Parker’s family and friends also wear crocheted blue ribbons with coral roses stitched in the center. Coral was her daughter’s favorite color, Libby Carswell said.

Carswell and Kim Smith, Tammy Parker’s sister, clutch small, hand-carved, wooden crosses during the most difficult testimony.

Testimony often lasts for hours. Benjamin doesn’t call for a lunch break until after 1 p.m.

The families have adapted. They bring bags of cookies and peanut butter and crackers in their purses. Sacks of hard candy are passed between friends, cousins and aunts, with wrappers quietly crinkling as the sweets are opened.

Watching over the families are two victims’ advocates from the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, who bring cushions to soften the hard, straight-backed courtroom benches and are quick with tissues and hugs when tears flow. The advocates also handle parking tickets left nearly every day on the families’ car windshields.

Brett Parker’s mother, his 14-year-old daughter and other family members sit on the front row, directly behind his defense team. On breaks, Parker often turns in his seat to talk to his mother, Linda.

Other men and women, who appear to be Parker family friends, sit behind them. So do witnesses, who are waiting to take their turns on the stand.

Long days

The days are long. Lunches are usually short.

And with so many people watching, the courtroom is loud during breaks, often disturbing proceedings in the courtroom next door.

The trial also has been marked by lawyers’ arguments that force Benjamin to excuse the jury while prosecutors and defense attorneys debate evidence.

Parker is being represented by David Fedor, a trial lawyer who has been practicing for 52 years, and Whitlark, a seasoned criminal defense attorney whose gravelly voice sounds like the Marlboro cigarettes he smokes during breaks.

They’ve argued over photographs of bodies, phone transcripts and legal minutiae, which may be boring to outsiders but are critical to the legal system. On Friday, confusion erupted over whether lawyers could testify as witnesses. It was never clear whether defense lawyers want to call themselves or others. Prosecutors cited case law and S.C. Supreme Court rules.

Benjamin, a relatively new judge, called for a recess so she and her law clerk could study the issue. She ultimately denied the request.

On most days, the courtroom is packed.

The trial has attracted national attention. A crew from CBS’ “48 Hours,” a true-crime documentary series that airs on Saturday nights, is on hand.

Heavyweights of the South Carolina Bar, including notable defense attorneys Jack Swerling and Joe McCullough, have stopped in to watch.

The prosecution is led by one of the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office’s toughest attorneys, Luck Campbell. She is being assisted by Nicole Simpson and Megan Walker. Between cases, other attorneys from their office drop in to observe their colleagues.

On several days, one of the witnesses in the trial drew a crowd.

Lanny Gunter, a well-known Irmo bookie and sports-bar owner, is serving five months in federal prison for operating a gambling ring. He was moved to the county jail from the federal prison in Edgefield for more than a week in anticipation of his testimony.

His friends and family filled several rows in the courtroom. The first time he stepped into the courtroom, during a break in testimony, people waved. One woman blurted out, “Lanny!”

When he was released from testimony, his family clapped, drawing a glare from a courtroom bailiff. Later, a friend said Gunter found the county jail a less hospitable environment than federal prison, and his family was relieved he would be going back to Edgefield.

Then there are people who have become interested in the case and want to watch it in person.

On Friday, a Sumter man brought his teenage daughter to watch. The girl said she had become interested in the judicial system in her high school government class and has been captivated by the Parker trial coverage that she follows on Twitter.

John Q. Davis, a 74-year-old retiree, arrives every day in a suit and a tie, carrying Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead” and a folded newspaper. A self-described courthouse junkie, Davis said he has been watching trials for years and is fascinated by the criminal justice system.

Davis takes pride in being a neutral observer. He said he has served on three juries and is watching the Brett Parker trial as if he again must decide guilt or innocence.

“It’s a difficult case,” he said. “... This is a tough one.”

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