The fate of Billy Wayne Cope, convicted of raping and killing his own 12-year-old daughter in a 2001 crime that he confessed to but claims he did not commit, now rests with the S.C. Supreme Court.
Cope’s lawyer, David Bruck, claimed defiantly Tuesday to the state’s highest court that Cope “did not get a fair trial” in 2004. Bruck said the other man convicted in the crime, a sexual predator named James Edward Sanders, is the sole monster.
Prosecutors again balked at any idea that Cope is anything other than a incestuous rapist who served up his daughter to Sanders and then strangled her in a fit of rage.
Cope, prosecutors say, covered up the crime scene at his Rich Street home in Rock Hill and then tried to get off the hook with confessions that were designed for an insanity defense. Cope was “playing an accident game” about what happened from the time he called 911 in November 2001 to say, without emotion, that his daughter was dead.
Cope also admitted it, said Deputy Attorney General Donald Zelenka.
Cope, who lived in a disgusting home filled with feces and urine and roaches, was convicted in 2004. But Tuesday, his lawyers argued that the confessions Cope gave were false.
They say Cope deserves a new trial because jurors did not get to hear about all of Sanders’ other heinous crimes.
Sanders is a convicted sexual predator and burglar whose DNA was found on Amanda Cope’s clothes and body after she was “mutilated.”
Cope, 49, was not in court. He was in a prison. Both Cope and Sanders are serving life sentences for murder, rape, and conspiracy to commit rape. Cope also has been convicted, twice, of child neglect because of his three daughters’ living conditions. Even his own lawyer said in court Tuesday that Cope was “a suspect from central casting” because of his appearance and “filthy and revolting home.”
The Supreme Court, which spent about 45 minutes grilling Bruck and Zelenka, made no decision Tuesday. A decision could be reached in weeks or months.
The court gallery was filled with law students, court observers, and those who claim Cope has been steamrolled by overzealous police and prosecutors. The prosecutors who put Cope in prison, Kevin Brackett and Willy Thompson, were there, as was former solicitor Tommy Pope.
Only Bruck, Zelenka and the five justices spoke. The Supreme Court hearing was a legal fistfight, with the justices repeatedly interrupting the lawyers and demanding answers about the confessions and more. It will take a majority - three of the five justices - to overturn any conviction and potentially order a new trial.
Nobody disputes that Cope was home with his three daughters when Amanda, the oldest, was brutally attacked.
Cope’s defense claims Sanders was a stranger who broke in through a window. Prosecutors say Cope let Sanders in and participated in both the sexual crime and killing.
In the hearing, the justices first heard from Bruck, the Virginia law professor who specializes in claims of wrongful convictions. In 2004, the trial judge refused to allow Cope’s defense attorneys to tell the jury about all of Sanders’ previous rapes and break-ins. Not being able to tell the jury that Sanders was a serial sexual predator, Bruck argued, gutted the defense case.
Cope “dug himself deeper” with confessions, but the confessions were false, Bruck argued, and only came after a lie detector test that police told Cope he failed. Cope’s lawyers claim Cope passed the test. But once police told Cope that he failed the lie detector test that he asked for, Cope confessed to the crimes in several statements, including a videotaped re-enactment at his home, according to his attorneys.
Justice Kaye Hearn repeatedly brought up the confessions. Hearn also mentioned all the other evidence against Cope. Amanda Cope was found in a staged crime scene with a blanket strip around her neck, but she had been strangled by hands, not the blanket.
“We have the bite mark at the same time as the injuries that Mr. Cope confessed to; the house un-navigable without help; the death scene was staged; and we have Cope admitting it,” Hearn said. “What incentive did Sanders have to stage the crime scene?”
Further, Cope admitted to mutilating his daughter with a broomstick, Hearn said.
The confessions just “dug himself deeper,” Bruck conceded, but there is no evidence that Cope ever met Sanders and the confessions never mention Sanders.
Yet Hearn asked Bruck: “What do we do with the confessions; just discard them?”
Further, citing the confessions and other evidence, Chief Justice Jean Toal made it clear that Sanders’ DNA in the house does not exclude Cope. Toal also brought up evidence not allowed into the trial that would have benefitted prosecutors, including how Cope’s wife told authorities that Cope was “constantly badgering her” for group sex.
Cope’s wife, Mary Sue, was at work when Amanda was killed. She died in 2002.
Toal brought up the fact that Cope testified himself in 2004, admitting he tried to concoct a story to look crazy.
Sanders lived in the same neighborhood as Cope at the time of Amanda’s murder. Cope’s lawyers claim he did not know Sanders, but Toal said in court Tuesday they lived near each other and it was possible they knew each other. Cope, who worked only part-time, “clearly had the time on his hands” to potentially meet Sanders, Toal said.
The conspiracy between Cope and Sanders to commit the crime was never proven and should be thrown out, Bruck argued. Further, the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who claimed Sanders made an admission about sexually assaulting a “little girl” in Rock Hill should have been allowed in the trial.
“To say that was a fair trial...That simply was not true,” Bruck stated.
The justices then turned to Zelenka, from the attorney general’s office, who claimed that the other crimes Sanders committed were not “sufficiently similar” and, therefore, should have stayed out of the trial. The trial judge’s decision in 2004 not to allow the jury to consider Sanders’ other crimes was “a harmless error,” Zelenka claimed.
But Bruck pounced, describing that claim as “a retreat” by prosecutors who fought to keep Sanders’ sexual deviance away from the jury.
“There is no way that this was harmless,” Bruck argued.
The justices were clearly concerned about the evidence excluded in the 2004 trial. Justice Costa Pleicones stated that excluding some of the evidence “deprived Mr. Cope the opportunity to present a defense.”
Sanders, a convicted felon at the time of the incident, was charged with several break-ins and burglaries after that. At least two involved allegations of sexual assault. He was convicted of at least two counts of burglary in 2007, the county public index shows.
Pleicones was troubled by the absence of other evidence of the conspiracy, saying prosecutors’ argument that Cope had to have let Sanders into the house is simply a version of: “It must have been that way.”
Sanders normal routine of solo break-ins to steal and rape would have been “powerful evidence that Sanders acted by himself,” Chief Justice Toal said. Not allowing in Sanders’ other crimes “slammed the door on Cope’s theory.”
Zelenka countered that the crime was a “dual action by Mr. Cope and Mr. Sanders.”
Justice Hearn repeatedly voiced concerns about the conspiracy angle, asking at least three times why Cope’s lawyers believe the murder conviction should be vacated even if the conspiracy to commit rape does get overturned.
“How about the theory that he confessed?” Hearn asked Bruck.
Pleicones, who called the crime a “horrible event,” also brought up the evidence against Cope, including the confessions of a father to the crimes of rape, sodomy, strangling, and cover-up.
Yet Bruck argued that if the conspiracy is tossed, Cope should not face any charges. That prompted Pleicones to ask: “There would be no retrial on anything, then?’
After court, Susan Archie, Cope’s sister, said Sanders is the guilty man and her brother is innocent.
“We are very optimistic that he might get a re-trial,” Archie said.
What remains to be decided is Billy Wayne Cope’s fate. Will three of the five justices determine that he deserves a new trial because of a judge’s mistake or the actions of police and prosecutors - despite all of Cope’s confessions to an unthinkable crime and without any evidence of forced entry?
Amanda Cope’s fate was sealed 11 years ago this month. She was just 12 years old, a middle school student, when she was savagely raped, sodomized, and strangled. Amanda Cope’s fate was the worst death anybody ever heard of.
Unfortunately, the S.C. Supreme Court cannot overturn that.
Andrew Dys * 803-329-4065 * firstname.lastname@example.org.