Crime

U.S. Supreme Court denies Rock Hill man’s appeal in rape, murder of 12-year-old daughter

The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to hear the appeal of a Rock Hill man, Billy Wayne Cope, convicted 10 years ago of the 2001 rape and murder of his 12-year-old daughter, Amanda.

The denial essentially ends almost all of Cope’s chances of having the conviction overturned, leaving only the possibility of a civil lawsuit remaining. Cope is serving a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole.

Police and prosecutors have maintained for a decade that Cope tried to manipulate the legal system after repeatedly abusing his child and finally strangling her.

Cope, 50, and James Edward Sanders, an ex-con facing several other rape and burglary charges from around the same time, were convicted in 2004 of rape, murder and conspiracy after Amanda Cope was assaulted and strangled in the bedroom of her family’s Rich Street home in Rock Hill.

Yet DNA from semen and saliva found on Amanda Cope’s clothes and body belonged solely to Sanders, and Cope’s lawyers claimed that Cope did not get a fair trial because jurors should have heard that Sanders was a serial predator arrested for several other violent crimes including rape.

“All of us who worked on this case, who knew the awful, brutal way that Amanda Cope lived her last moments and died, never had any doubt as to Mr. Cope’s guilt,” said Kevin Brackett, the 16th Circuit solicitor who was lead prosecutor in the 2004 trial. “We are very gratified that yet another court – and this court is the highest court in the land – has agreed that Billy Wayne Cope received a fair trial. Mr. Cope was convicted because he is guilty.”

The decision “affirms the thoroughness of the investigation and the prosecution of Mr. Cope,” Rock Hill Police Chief Chris Watts said.

Cope’s lawyers vowed to keep fighting in state and federal courts.

“The Supreme Court’s decision today is not a surprise, and it’s certainly not the end of the fight to free this innocent man,” said a statement sent by Jim Morton and Michael Smith, two of Cope’s Rock Hill trial lawyers, along with Virginia law professor David Bruck and Steve Drizin of an innocence project. Bruck was the lawyer for convicted child killer Susan Smith of Union and now is one of several lawyers defending accused Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

“The Supreme Court almost never agrees to hear cases like Billy Cope’s, because the Court knows that he can still obtain review in state and federal court in South Carolina.

“We are dealing with a case of tunnel vision by police and prosecutors who simply cannot admit that they have made a mistake, and that James Sanders committed this terrible crime by himself,” the statement continued. “Billy Cope has now been in prison for 13 years without a fair trial – a trial where the jury gets to hear his evidence and not just the prosecution’s. The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear his case at this stage means that he’s going to have to go back to the South Carolina courts for justice. We’ll stay with him until this appalling miscarriage of justice is made right.”

The defense team did not give specifics, but defendants who lose all appeals typically file a post-conviction relief lawsuit that usually claims either prosecutorial misconduct or ineffective counsel by trial lawyers. Yet those cases almost always are lost by the convicted person – and in this case Cope had four trial lawyers. Most importantly, the fairness of the trial has now been reviewed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Miller Shealy, law professor at Charleston School of Law, said it will be “very difficult” for Cope now to have a chance at overturning the conviction through either post-conviction relief or a federal Habeas Corpus lawsuit. It appears, Shealy said, that Cope’s lawyers already did a good job in fighting the appeal and that will make it even tougher in lawsuits claiming that Cope did not have effective counsel.

“This defendant (Cope) has a long, hard road ahead of him,” Shealy said.

Cope needed at least four of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices to believe that his case merited oral arguments. The denial issued Monday cannot be appealed, Shealy said.

Phil Baity, one of Cope’s trial lawyers in 2004, said the hope that the Supreme Court would order a new trial was essentially a “last chance” for Cope to fight the conviction. The DNA, Baity said, showed Sanders was guilty. No one ever showed any connection between the two men that proved a conspiracy that both men were convicted of, Baity said.

“This is such a tragedy,” Baity said. “I just don’t know what to say. This is one of those cases where the whole system just got it wrong.”

But Cope’s conviction has now been upheld by the S.C. Court of Appeals, S.C. Supreme Court, and U.S. Supreme Court. Cope and his lawyers had appealed the conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court after the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 in a split 3-2 vote that the trial judge’s decision in 2004 not to allow Sanders’ other crimes into the trial was proper. Cope initially denied any involvement but gave three confessions to officers before claiming later the confessions were coerced by overzealous police.

Susan Archie, Cope’s sister who has said for more than a decade that her brother is innocent, just said, “Oh, no!” when she was told that her brother’s appeal was denied.

Cope testified at his 2004 trial that he never knew Sanders and didn’t kill his daughter despite repeated confessions. But Cope also admitted at trial that he tried to turn his confessions into an insanity defense before his lawyers attacked the confessions as being false.

Cope admitted to child neglect from the case after a similar admission in 1999 when his three children were found in homes filled with garbage, insects and filth.

The case was the subject of a 2010 Dateline NBC special that questioned police and prosecutors’ handling of the case. But Brackett, the lead prosecutor, said the television show was one-sided and didn’t show the overwhelming evidence against Cope. After the show aired, Brackett created a website to outline the evidence against Cope.

Police and prosecutors showed Cope willingly confessed several times, including a videotaped re-enactment, before trying to claim he didn’t commit the crimes. Cope was in the home at the time of the crime and he must have let Sanders in the house for both to commit the crimes together, police and prosecutors said.

Evidence showed that Amanda Cope had been repeatedly sexually assaulted and sodomized, said Willy Thompson, who along with former Solicitor Tommy Pope and Brackett prosecuted the case.

“Justice for Amanda Cope has been done,” Thompson said. “She was subjected to repeated abuse. Justice has prevailed. Both Cope and Sanders were found guilty because the evidence proved they were guilty.”

After Amanda was killed, Cope also was charged with sexual assault against his two younger daughters, but Brackett, the lead prosecutor, dropped those charges with the right to restore them after the 2004 conviction.

“Finally, a long road for the surviving daughters appears that it has ended with the direct appeal being over,” Brackett said. “They can go on with their lives.”

Sanders’ appeals were denied years ago, and he also is serving a life sentence without parole.

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