Lawyers for Billy Wayne Cope will argue before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday that the Rock Hill man convicted of raping and killing his 12-year-old daughter in 2001 should get the whole case thrown out – or at least get a new trial.
Prosecutors also will argue that Cope – convicted along with James Edward Sanders of the rape and murder of Amanda Cope, plus a conspiracy to commit the crimes – should stay in prison until he dies.
Cope confessed to the rape and murder three times – including participating in a video re-enactment at his home – and admitted he staged the crime scene to make it look like his daughter strangled herself. His lawyers say the confessions were false and coerced, a claim prosecutors called “absurd.”
Cope testified in the 2004 trial of both men that he was trying to concoct an insanity defense through his statements to police. Prosecutors have argued that no one confesses to the rape and murder of his own child unless he did it.
Back in 2004, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett slammed the false confession theory, calling defense experts “hired guns” and nicknaming them “Captain Confession” and “Professor Polygraph.”
The pathologist who performed the autopsy on Amanda Cope testified that her injuries were consistent with many previous sexual assaults.
Cope was in the house when his daughter was killed. He confessed three times over four days, after initially denying involvement to police. He asked for and failed a polygraph – although the defense claims that Cope passed the polygraph and that led to the false confessions.
He showed no emotion when he called police hours after Amanda died, then admitted to staging the crime scene to try to make it look like the girl suffocated by accident, authorities say.
“For all the reasons I stated during the trial, because of the evidence against Mr. Cope, we believe justice was done,” Brackett said.
Sanders’ DNA was matched to semen and saliva at the crime scene.
Cope, 49, will not be at Tuesday’s hearing. He will be in a prison cell where he is serving a sentence of life plus 30 years. It is the same sentence that Sanders, a convicted sexual predator found guilty of other crimes, too, is serving for a crime that might be as brutal as any ever committed in York County.
The death of Amanda Cope, and the arrest and trial of her father and Sanders, was as high-profile a case as there may have ever been in York County. Cope was arrested soon after the crime, but a year later, Sanders was charged after police said bodily fluids matched his DNA. Both men were charged with conspiracy.
Cope and Sanders were tried together in September 2004. The trial was the subject of a 2009 NBC TV special that was panned by prosecutors as so one-sided that Brackett set up a website to show all the public record evidence from the trial that police and law enforcement had against Cope.
‘They have had the wrong guy’
The Supreme Court is hearing Cope’s appeal potentially to overturn the conviction because Cope’s lawyers, including two who specialize in wrongful conviction claims, say Cope never should have been convicted in the first place.
The state Court of Appeals initially upheld Cope’s convictions, then dropped – but later reinstated – the conspiracy conviction.
“We are looking forward to it,” said Jim Morton, the Rock Hill lawyer who defended Cope in the 2004 trial and maintains that Cope did not rape and kill his daughter.
“I am certain that they have had the wrong guy in jail for 11 years.”
Cope’s lawyers claim there was no evidence that Cope ever knew Sanders, and that Sanders broke into the house on Rock Hill’s Rich Street while Cope was asleep. Prosecutors say there was no evidence of forced entry, so Cope must have let Sanders in.
Cope’s lawyers also say the confessions came only after Cope was told he had failed a lie detector test. Prosecutors have countered that claim repeatedly, saying Cope asked for the test, failed it, then admitted the crime and staged crime scene, only later trying to back out of his admissions.
The Supreme Court hearing will focus on three claims Cope’s lawyers say warrant an overturned conviction or new trial:
Sanders’ “prior bad acts” of rape and more against other victims should have been heard by the jury. The trial judge did not allow those crimes into the 2004 trial.
• The defense’s false confession experts were not allowed to tell jurors about other false confession cases. The judge allowed the experts to testify but not about other cases.
• The conspiracy was never proven.
In documents filed with the Supreme Court, Cope’s lawyers further claim that charging Cope with conspiracy after finding out it was Sanders’ DNA on the body was done only for “expediency” to convict Cope.
“There was no other way, short of admitting a grievous error, for authorities to reconcile the fact that Cope had confessed to a crime that Sanders had clearly committed,” wrote David Bruck, a defense lawyer and law professor from Virginia.
In the mid-1990s Bruck represented Susan Smith, the Union woman serving life in prison for drowning her two sons.
Both Bruck and Morton will argue the case for Cope on Tuesday.
Prosecutor: Verdict ‘inevitable’
The state Attorney General’s Office will argue the case for prosecutors Tuesday. A spokesman declined comment.
As to the claim that prosecutors charged Cope with conspiracy to “essentially save face,” assistant attorney general Donald Zelenka wrote in a court document that Cope’s claim, “ignores the prosecution’s obligations to seek justice and seek the truth.”
The case against Cope and Sanders is based on the DNA against Sanders and all the other circumstances about Cope, prosecutors wrote, including that the door to the house was locked and chained from the inside when Cope’s other daughters went to sleep before Amanda was killed.
“The reality that the facts led to both Cope and Sanders was ultimately inevitable,” Zelenka wrote.
The Supreme Court will not rule Tuesday. Justices will hear arguments and ask questions of the lawyers.
After all the arguments Tuesday, a 12-year-old girl, raped and sodomized and strangled, living in a home filled with buckets of feces and urine and roaches, will still be dead.
No lawyers can bring her back or undo the terrible, horrible things that were done to her. A jury said those awful things were done by her own father and another man.
The Supreme Court, which often takes weeks or months to issue a ruling after a case is heard, will decide if Billy Wayne Cope gets a new trial or stays in prison until he is dead.