S.C. high court upholds Cope’s life sentence

jzou@heraldonline.comAugust 28, 2013 

— The life prison sentence for a Rock Hill man convicted of killing his daughter in 2001 was upheld by the state Supreme Court on Wednesday morning – capping a legal battle that involved multiple confessions and appeals.

The state’s high court ruled to uphold Billy Wayne Cope’s conviction in the brutal rape and death of his 12-year-old daughter, Amanda Cope, who was found dead in her bed with a blanket wrapped around her neck.

A subsequent investigation found the girl had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

Both Cope, 50, and a neighbor, James E. Sanders, 54, were convicted of her rape and murder in 2004.

Both men are serving life terms – most recently, Cope in Bishopville and Sanders in Columbia, according to the S.C. Department of Corrections website.

Sanders, whose DNA was recovered from the child’s body, was tied to several break-ins involving assault against women within weeks of Amanda’s death in 2001 and early 2002.

Sanders’ 2009 appeal to overturn his conviction was rejected.

The state Court of Appeals upheld Cope’s conviction in his first appeal after the conviction. In Cope’s latest appeal, which was escalated to the state Supreme Court, attorneys alleged that his confession to the crimes were false and coerced by police.

“We’re gratified by the decision of the Supreme Court,” said 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett. “We’ve always been confident of Mr. Cope’s guilt and the evidence against him and we believe he received a fair trial.”

Cope’s Rock Hill lawyers said they are pushing to move the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and said the state’s decision was disappointing.

“We plan on pursuing this case through the federal system,” said James Morton of Morton & Gettys. “We think they can look at it with a clear view.”

Morton and his attorneys said Cope was misled by police into giving false confessions and that the jury was unable to make an informed decision because key parts of Cope’s defense were deemed inadmissible.

When police arrived at Cope’s Rich Street home on Nov. 29, 2001, officers found squalid living conditions that included strewn cat feces and a roach infestation.

Cope confessed to the crimes on three different occasions to investigators, with varying accounts. He placed the call to 911 several hours after he discovered his daughter was dead, according to court documents.

It was after investigators told Cope he had failed a polygraph test that he began to confess to the crimes, even agreeing “to return to his home so police could videotape his confession while he purported to re-enact the crime.”

DNA evidence found on the Amanda’s body tied Sanders to the sexual assault and murder and prosecutors alleged that both men conspired in her murder and rape.

On Cope’s first appeal, the appelate court upheld Cope’s conviction but excluded the conspiracy charge. The court later reviewed its decision and upheld the conspiracy portion as well.

Cope’s lawyers denied that he ever knew Sanders personally and that Sanders had broken into the home.

All four state Supreme Court justices concurred on the decision to uphold the conviction, with two of the justices partially dissenting and asking for a new trial because of errors in the judiciary process.

As part of their defense, Cope’s lawyers had hoped to present Sanders’ criminal history to the jury as evidence that Sanders had acted alone.

In its decision, the Supreme Court wrote that “we acknowledge there is no direct evidence the two men agreed to commit this crime or that they even knew each other ... however, conspiracy can be proven by circumstantial evidence.”

The court’s decision goes on to state that there was ample circumstantial evidence for a jury to conclude the men conspired to commit the crimes.

Two justices diverged from the general consensus of the court when it came to the exclusion of evidence regarding Sanders’ criminal history where he broke into several homes in the weeks after the murder and tried to or successfully assaulted female victims.

“Had the jury known the complete story about the man whose semen and saliva was found on the body of Amanda Cope, there never would have been a guilty verdict (against Cope),” Morton said.

The U.S. Supreme Court hears less than 1 percent of all petitions filed annually. Cope’s legal team is looking into any other legal remedies that remain on the state level.

Jie Jenny Zou • 803-329-4062

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