James Robertson, York County’s only death row inmate, gets new shot at avoiding sentence

Just when it appeared that Rock Hill’s James Robertson had run out of options in trying to avoid the death penalty, the S.C. Supreme Court has offered one more legal maneuver.

The S.C. Supreme Court ruled recently in a split decision that lawyers in death penalty cases must have a combination of death penalty trial experience, post-conviction relief experience, plus other continuing education. Robertson’s lawyers did not have that, the supreme court says. So, in an effort to reverse his conviction and sentence, Robertson gets a chance to argue that his lawyers blew the case in 1999.

Legal experts say Robertson’s chances are small. The ruling does mean a slim chance at avoiding the death penalty, said Kennth Gaines, a criminal law expert and professor at the University of South Carolina law school.

“The chances of success are low, Gaines said. “Really low.”

James “Jimmy” Robertson, 43, was sentenced to death in 1999. He was found guilty of killing Terry and Earl Robertson in their Rock Hill home in November 1997 in an attempt to get their multi-million dollar estate. He fled to Pennsylvania, leaving a trail of credit card purchases and evidence, including the murder weapons, and was caught by police in Philadelphia. The 1999 trial was broadcast live nationwide on Court TV.

All of Robertson’s appeals have failed. Execution dates have twice been set for Robertson, the only death row inmate with York County roots.

But the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that Robertson is entitled to a new hearing because of the qualifications of his lawyers in a failed 2008 lawsuit. Robertson claimed in that 2008 post-conviction relief lawsuit that his trial lawyers botched the case in 1999 by not pursuing a guilty but mentally ill plea deal, among other alleged errors. A judge had a three-day hearing in 2008 and ruled against Robertson.

Robertson and an anti-death penalty group from Columbia, and Cornell law school in New York, say in court documents that Robertson’s lawyers in the 2008 lawsuit, Michael Brown and the late Joe Matlock, did not have the required experience.

It took the S.C. Supreme Court 14 months to make a decision after hearing arguments in October 2015.

“It is a technical decision, but the supreme court ruling says the law wasn’t followed,” Gaines said.

The ruling does not free Roberson or give him a new trial. If he wins his lawsuit, Robertson could get a new trial or sentencing hearing.

No date has been set for the new hearing, said Hayley Thrift Bledsoe, spokesperson for the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, which will again argue that Robertson does not deserve another appeal and should be executed.

Efforts to reach Robertson’s current lawyers, Keir Weyble of Cornell Law school in New York and Emily Paavola of Columbia , were unsuccessful.

“In capital cases, courts are very careful about the rights of a defendant,” Gaines said. “The lawyers for Robertson seemed like they left no stone unturned when trying to seek a new hearing, and they got one.”