HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Lawyers for two men charged with the 2012 death of a Hilton Head Island boy say deputies' interrogation tactics, including unfulfilled promises and denials of food and water for more than eight hours, amounted to coercion.
Roberts Vaux, who represents Aaron Young Jr., said Friday he and Robert Ferguson, who represents Aaron Young Sr., are working to keep some of their clients' statements out of court by arguing they involuntarily provided information to Beaufort County Sheriff's Office investigators in the hours following the shooting death of 8-year-old Khalil Singleton.
Judge Thomas Cooper will decide whether the Youngs spoke voluntarily and whether their statements will be admissible to the jury, before they are tried together in October or November, Vaux said.
Vaux said the defense is preparing two motions, one claiming their clients were coerced and another requesting Cooper suppress their statements, based on their client's claims and some video and audio recordings of Young Jr.'s interrogations.
They filed the first motion -- claiming coercion -- but are still waiting for a forensic psychologist to review recordings of Young Sr.'s interrogation, which surfaced the day the trial began and collapsed.
The trial of a third defendant, Tyrone Robinson, is expected to begin in September, Vaux said. Robinson and the Youngs were exchanging gunfire in a neighborhood on Allen Road on Hilton Head Island on Sept. 1, 2012, when Singleton was fatally wounded by a stray bullet, authorities have said.
That bullet came from Robinson's gun, not the one Young Jr. used to shoot at Robinson's car, a report has found.
Vaux and Ferguson say their clients were coerced because deputies told them they would not be charged with murder if they helped investigators recover Young Jr.'s gun.
Vaux said Young Jr. was told he would be spared a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Young Sr. said he was told he and his son would be "exonerated and made star witnesses" if they helped, he testified in court April 21.
Some of the Youngs' statements and cooperation came at least eight hours after they were taken into custody, during which they were denied food, water and cigarettes, Vaux said.
Young Sr. also asked a deputy for an attorney, but the interrogation continued. That deputy, who was later fired for breaking protocol, never passed along Young Sr.'s request to a senior investigator, according to the Sheriff's Office.
"I would say that's strong-arm tactics sufficient to remove the free and voluntariness of your statements," Vaux said.
Colin Miller, a University of South Carolina law professor, said Vaux and Ferguson will have a difficult time making that case.
It's not uncommon for attorneys to argue their clients were coerced by law enforcement, but it's tough to prove and "exceedingly rare" for a judge to throw out key evidence or a confession, he said.
"It has to be pretty egregious behavior by a police officer," Miller said.
Even deceit or lies don't necessarily constitute coercion, Miller said. Attorneys must argue their clients' "will was overborne" by threats of physical, emotional or mental harm, he said.
Those threats are usually severe, Miller said, such as police interrogating a nearly comatose suspect in a hospital bed or warning a suspect he would never see his children again if he didn't cooperate.
Miller said overt threats didn't appear to have been made in the Sheriff's Office interrogation rooms on Hilton Head.
"It's giving (Young Sr.) a choice, and in a sense it's a sort of false choice, but not the level where a judge would find the statements were involuntary," Miller said.
Ferguson, Young Sr.'s attorney, acknowledged there is a sticking point in arguing that the Youngs were coerced to cooperate. Their help proved the fatal shot did not come from their gun, which would benefit them in court.
"That's something we have to consider," Ferguson said. "It's hard to say what position we're taking now."
Ferguson said the defense is focusing solely on proving their clients were coerced.Ferguson and Vaux say they have not reviewed a copy of the Sheriff's Office's internal review that found several deputies contributed to the breakdown of the Youngs' and Robinson's first trial.
The report found the deputies mishandled evidence that surfaced April 23, the day Judge Cooper indefinitely postponed the trial. While all the defendants were going to be tried separately, Vaux said Friday that Young Sr. -- who posted a $100,000 bond June 2 -- and his son will now have a joint trial.
14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said he has not requested the Sheriff's Office report either, but plans to review it in the coming weeks.
Stone said he will prepare to argue against any motions the defense files but declined to comment further on the pending case.
Attempts to reach Robinson's attorney, Arie Bax, were unsuccessful.