March 30, 2014

Prosecutor can seek death penalty against Rock Hill grandfather

Police say Ronald Fred Gregory, 67, tried to kill himself after killing his wife and his granddaughter.

Although Mia Rodgers’ maternal grandparents would support prosecutors seeking the death penalty against the 9-year-old girl’s other grandfather, Ronald Fred Gregory, if he is convicted of killing the child, deciding whether to seek capital punishment rests solely with 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett.

The maternal grandparents, Paul and Nina Rodgers, who were locked in a custody battle with Gregory, his wife and his son – Mia’s father – could seek justice in a civil court, family court lawyers said. But victims, even in a heinous crime, do not decide whether convicted defendants face death by lethal injection or the electric chair.

Brackett has so far declined to discuss the case.

Gregory admitted to police that he shot and killed Mia and his wife, Barbara, on March 21, according to a police incident report. But Gregory’s mental state is already being questioned by his court-appointed lawyers, which could factor into any decision about whether the case goes to trial or ends with a plea that might include guilty but mentally ill.

Gregory’s lawyers have not talked about the case. But a mentally ill plea could not, under state law, result in the death penalty. With such a plea, Gregory would likely die in prison.

If the case goes to trial, prosecutors can seek the death penalty because of two extenuating circumstances: Two people were killed, and one of the victims was younger than 10, said State Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, who for 13 years was York County’s top prosecutor. Pope retired in 2006 to go into private law practice, and Brackett took over the office.

“The first question is does this qualify as a death penalty case, and it appears that it does based on those two aggravating factors,” Pope said. “But the decision is the prosecutor’s alone, even if the prosecutor considers the wishes of the victims’ family.”

And in this case, the victims’ family includes not only relatives of Mia’s late mother but also Kevin Gregory, Mia’s father and the son of Ronald and Barbara Gregory. Kevin Gregory, along with his parents, had filed a lawsuit against the Rodgerses to get custody of Mia last year. They won temporary custody in October.

One factor that might be considered, Pope said, is that Ronald Gregory has no prior criminal record. Another factor is Gregory’s apparent suicide attempt. According to a police report, Gregory tried to kill himself with two gunshots after killing his wife and granddaughter. Prosecutors will likely consider whether Gregory’s self-inflicted shots were a “true attempt to kill himself” or an “attempt to make it appear that way,” Pope said.

Yet even with the brutality of the crimes, Pope said he is “not sure that this would end up a death penalty case.”

Miller Shealy, a Charleston Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, also said that even with the “obvious terrible nature of the crimes, including one victim a child,” questions about Gregory’s mental state could also mean that prosecutors would choose not to seek the death penalty.

Pope sought the death penalty in several cases in York and Union counties, including against Susan Smith, who drowned her two children almost 20 years ago in a case that became a national phenomenon. Smith was convicted but the jury opted for life in prison rather than death.

Pope and Brackett were later successful in death penalty trials against police killer Mar-Reece Hughes; James Robertson, who killed his parents; and two other cases where the death sentences were eventually overturned on appeal. All those convicted killers remain jailed.

In 2002, when Pope was solicitor and Brackett his second in command, they announced they would seek the death penalty against Michael Sean Godfrey, who shot and killed his girlfriend and her grandmother in the parking lot of the Moss Justice Center in York. The decision to seek the death penalty led Godfrey to plead guilty. He received two sentences of life without parole.

York County prosecutors have not sought the death penalty in more than decade.

The Rodgerses have claimed that the Gregorys misrepresented their role in Mia’s childhood and upbringing in Family Court documents, which led to Mia being put in Ronald Gregory’s custody. Paul Rodgers, Mia’s maternal grandfather, said that if Mia were not put in Ronald Gregory’s custody, she would still be alive.

Mia’s survivors could potentially seek a wrongful death or survivorship civil action concerning Mia’s death, said Dale Dove, a longtime Family Court lawyer. Through a lawsuit, the survivors could try to find out the truth that led to the custody decision. However, Mia’s death essentially ends the Family Court custody suit that was pending, said Dove and Cherie Barton, another longtime Family Court lawyer.

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