Andrew Dys

Judge takes ‘mulligan,’ orders DNA testing in 1981 York County murder case

Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III has reversed his own decision by ordering new DNA testing for a Clover man convicted of murder 32 years ago for the death of an elderly York County woman.

In his June 5 order, Hayes called his chance for a do-over a “mulligan” – a term used when a golfer takes another swing after a bad shot and records it as if the first shot had not happened. Known for his intelligence and razor-sharp wit in 20 years as a judge, Hayes has quoted Shakespeare in other rulings.

Hayes even labeled his decision in the civil case of convicted killer William Johnny Hullett a “Mulligan Order.” A footnote on the order reads: “Even judges sometimes need a mulligan.”

Hullett was convicted in 1982 for the 1981 rape and killing of Bessie Kate Alexander near Smyrna in western York County. He confessed to the crime, but now claims an uncaught serial killer committed the crime. That claim came after another convicted killer who claimed innocence, Sterling Spann, claimed Hullett was the serial killer.

After reviewing the request for DNA testing a second time, Hayes ruled Hullett has the right under state criminal law to have materials from the case tested to see if his DNA can be found. Hayes and another judge before him had ruled that Hullett’s civil lawsuit seeking DNA testing did not meet legal requirements based on civil jurisdictional grounds.

But Hayes wrote in his latest order that he erred when he looked at the case using civil court requirements, rather than those used in criminal court. State law – the Access to Justice Post-Conviction DNA Testing Act – allows for post-conviction DNA testing, Hayes ruled.

The order vacates Hayes’ April decision denying Hullett’s request. After that ruling, Hullett’s lawyers asked Hayes to look at the case again.

“The undersigned, with hindsight, realizes he, too, should have been astute enough to catch that the (civil court) rabbit trail was not the correct rabbit trail to follow,” Hayes wrote.

In a separate order, Hayes ordered the testing of evidence slides from the autopsies of three elderly Clover women – Alexander, Mary Ring and Melva Niell – all killed in 1981. He also ordered testing of jewelry and clothing connected to Alexander’s killing. Hullett’s legal team will pay for the testing.

Miller Shealy, a Charleston School of Law professor, said it is rare for a judge to change a ruling. A judge’s willingness to do so allows him to correct an error, Shealy said.

Tom McKinney, who has practiced law in Rock Hill for five decades, said he is not surprised Hayes took the time to review Hullett’s motion for reconsideration. Hayes might have used the term “mulligan,” he said, to emphasize that judges are human.

“What Judge Hayes did here is look at the material and see that Mr. Hullett had met the legal requirement for the DNA to be tested ... and he had the courage to change his decision,” McKinney said. “Judges are there to uphold the law and apply the law. That is the type person any citizen of this state should be proud to have on the bench.”

Chris Wellborn, one of Hullett’s lawyers, said all Hullett ever wanted was to have the evidence tested to show whether Hullett’s or someone else’s DNA is present.

“Obviously we are pleased to have the items tested and see what shakes out,” Wellborn said.

In a March hearing, attorney Byron Lichstein of the Wisconsin Innocence Project – which has taken on Hullett’s case – conceded that the serial killer theory is “stranger than fiction,” but DNA testing is needed because the evidence points to a single killer of all three women.

If the DNA testing implicates Hullett, Lichstein said, his appeal will be dropped.

Prosecutors have argued against DNA testing because evidence had been contaminated by a broken chain of custody.

Hullett, 67, is serving a life sentence after confessing to killing Alexander as part of an insanity defense. Sterling Spann of Clover was convicted of the rape and murder of Niell. The death of Ring was never solved.

Spann never admitted guilt, despite pleading guilty a decade ago just before a new trial he was granted after spending 17 years on death row. His lawyers long claimed that Hullett was the serial killer because Spann was already in jail at the time Alexander was killed. But after Spann was paroled in 2006, Innocence Project lawyers took up the cause on Hullett’s behalf, saying the three murders were committed by one person.

Prosecutors have balked at the notion that one person killed all three women, saying the cases were not that similar in facts, evidence, distance or time frame.

“Johnny Hullett was guilty in the death of Bessie Alexander – period,” said Willy Thompson, 16th Circuit deputy solicitor. “And Sterling Spann pleaded guilty in the death of Melva Niell.

“I find it fascinating that the same people who claimed Johnny Hullett was the serial killer when they were trying to defend Sterling Spann now say it is an unknown third person who is the serial killer.”