Few if any crimes in York County history have caused as much carnage as the brutal rape, sodomizing and killing of 12-year-old Amanda Cope.
Amanda was defiled. She was mutilated. She was strangled.
“The facts surrounding the sexual assault and murder of a child are graphic and profoundly disturbing.”
Those words come not from prosecutors arguing the case – who called it as horrible a crime as ever committed in York County in decades – but were written by state Supreme Court Justice Kaye Hearn.
Career criminal James Edward Sanders will die in prison for the crimes of rape and murder after his conviction 10 years ago Monday following three weeks of courtroom drama that shook and shocked York County and, later, the nation because of the horrible way Amanda died.
The other man convicted in connection of raping and murdering Amanda was not some stranger, some neighborhood ex-con just out of prison who preyed on people, as Sanders did. The other guy was a man his own lawyers called the perfect suspect – her father.
Billy Wayne Cope confessed repeatedly to sexual acts against his daughter for his own gratification and then to strangling her – then claimed he made it all up to appear crazy.
His lawyers say his confessions were coerced by overzealous cops.
Since the trial, a network television special tried to call into question Cope’s conviction, prosecutors created a website to refute what they saw as a one-sided report, and Cope’s lawyers said his trial was unfair because jurors did not fully know what a monster Sanders was.
What might be Cope’s last chance at a new trial hinges on a decision in coming days by the U.S. Supreme Court, which begins a new term Oct. 6. The justices will decide whether to hear arguments from Cope’s lawyers that he did not receive a fair trial. A decision could come as soon as Oct. 10, his lawyers say.
The Supreme Court will not decide whether Cope is guilty. What is at issue is whether jurors should have heard about the other rapes and burglaries and break-ins Sanders had committed. If the justices grant Cope a hearing, it could be scheduled within months, and the court could order a new trial.
“My thing has always been that we have DNA (evidence) for a serial burglar and rapist – period,” said Jim Morton, Cope’s lead lawyer and staunchest defender since his arrest almost 13 years ago. “That DNA does not belong to Billy Wayne Cope. It belongs to James Sanders.”
Prosecutors say that’s nonsense, that both men committed the heinous crime. Cope confessed to the crimes and was convicted in a fair trial because he was guilty, said 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett, who was lead prosecutor in the 2004 trial.
“Somebody had to let that man Sanders in that house,” Brackett said, “and that man was Billy Wayne Cope.”
Still, Cope and his lawyers and supporters claim he was strangled by the legal system. Cope has had some media in his corner, along with defense lawyers and law professors helping push his appeals.
If the Supreme Court refuses to hear the case, Cope’s appeal will be pretty much over. Other than longshot civil lawsuits, in which Cope could claim his team of four lawyers botched the case, or claims of prosecutorial misconduct or unlawful imprisonment, the word “denied” from the Supreme Court would mean Cope will almost assuredly die in jail.
Amanda Cope was found dead in her bed in her family’s Rich Street home in Rock Hill on the morning of Nov. 29, 2001. Her father called 911 to report that he had found her dead, using words repeated over and over by police, prosecutors and those who say he is guilty: His daughter was “cold as a cucumber.”
Prosecutors used those words to show that Billy Wayne Cope was emotionless, sitting at a computer even as his two other daughters wailed with grief and police came in the door. State Supreme Court Justice Hearn included it in her ruling against Cope’s request for a new trial.
When police arrived at the Cope home, they found it filled with garbage and infested with vermin – similar to conditions in 1999 when Cope pleaded guilty to child neglect. The three children were temporarily taken away by the courts.
The state Department of Social Services already was investigating the family in November 2001 – when Amanda was raped, sodomized and strangled – because of the conditions of the home.
Cope initially denied any involvement in his daughter’s death. He was interrogated for several hours in one meeting, denying he had anything to do with it. Cope claimed that, because he weighed 385 pounds and slept with a sleep apnea machine, he was asleep when somebody broke in and raped and killed his daughter in the next room.
Police, though, said Cope staged the crime scene to try to make it look like his daughter strangled herself with a blanket.
Cope’s first confession came after he was charged with Amanda’s murder. He asked for a polygraph, was told he failed, then confessed again. He confessed three times – including once on video, showing police how he had raped and killed his daughter and other details. That video, which was played in court, showed the obese Cope bouncing on the bed and claiming his daughter had been taken to heaven in a rapture.
Cope also was charged with sexually assaulting his two younger daughters.
His lawyers said days of interrogation broke Cope down and that he confessed only after being told he failed the polygraph, which they allege Cope actually had passed. For more than a decade, they have asked why Cope confess, but never mention Sanders?
Cope and Sanders have never admitted knowing each other.
Testing soon after the crime showed bodily fluids found on Amanda’s body and clothes belonged not to Cope, but to Sanders. Sanders, who lived around the corner from the Cope family, had never been mentioned by anyone until 2003, when police announced the DNA evidence matched him.
Sanders, already jailed on several other violent charges, was charged with murder and rape in Amanda’s death. Police and prosecutors charged both Sanders and Cope with conspiracy.
Sanders had been convicted and sentenced to prison multiple times before the attack on Amanda. He had been out of prison only a few weeks when she was killed. He was later charged with several violent crimes against other victims, including rape and burglary. Between Dec. 12, 2001, and Jan. 12, 2002, Sanders raped or attempted to sexually assault four women between the ages of 19 and 60.
In a Dec. 30, 2003, probable cause hearing, police and prosecutors alleged for the first time in court that Cope and Sanders had worked together in the heinous crime.
Cope’s lawyers balked, saying that once the DNA evidence was shown to be Sanders’, investigators refused to acknowledge that Cope’s confessions were bogus. Cope’s lawyers said Sanders sneaked into the house or broke in, raped and killed Amanda, then sneaked back out into the dark night.
Police found no sign of forced entry, and no one in the house told police they heard any intruder.
Prelude to trial
Prosecutors refused to change course, saying Cope and Sanders worked together despite neither admitting to the conspiracy, much less knowing each other. No father would confess to such a crime unless he had done it, prosecutors said.
An autopsy showed Amanda had been sexually assaulted multiple times before the night she was killed, a medical examiner testified. Cope’s expert pathologist would claim otherwise.
In June 2004, the York County office of the state Department of Social Services took Cope to Family Court to terminate his parental rights of his two surviving children. Family Court testimony showed that Cope was calm when Amanda was found dead, that he asked if anything bad would happen to him, and said he had something to get off his chest.
A Family Court judge stripped Cope of his parental rights.
Several days of hearings took place in September 2004, before the criminal trial.
Cope’s lawyers brought into court people Sanders had mauled and raped and robbed. They tried to establish that Sanders had a “common scheme and plan,” in hopes that a judge would allow them to present it to the jury. Morton, Cope’s lead lawyer, to this day says Sanders’ attack on Amanda was the work of a serial predator who raped and killed while working alone – and that Cope had nothing to do with it.
Prosecutors maintained that of all the other crimes Sanders was accused of, no one was killed and none of the victims were children. The Cope case, Brackett argued, was not the same as Sanders’ other crimes.
Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III ruled that Sanders’ other crimes were not admissible in the rape/murder trial because the facts were not the same. He also ruled that a false confession expert called by the defense could not talk about false confessions that had produced wrongful convictions in other cases.
Cope’s lawyers also wanted a jailhouse informant who claimed that Sanders had confessed to be able to testify, but Hayes said no.
The trial started in early September 2004, with Sanders and Cope on trial together.
Cope testified on his own behalf during the trial, claiming that – despite his confessions – he had nothing to do with the rape and murder of his daughter. He admitted that he had lied to try to establish an insanity defense, but he claimed that he confessed because of the polygraph results and police coercion.
“The last 10 years has showed a lot about the prevalence of false confessions,” Morton said, citing a North Carolina case in which two brothers who confessed to killing a child 30 years ago had been freed just three weeks ago – new DNA evidence pointing to another man.
“We had Sanders’ DNA before the trial,” Morton said. “The DNA showed it was Sanders.”
Still, Brackett maintains that Cope willingly confessed to police, that he had not been interrogated nonstop. After a weekend in jail, Brackett said, Cope asked police for another interview and confessed again, providing more details about the crime. He would go on to confess more times.
Cope also wrote letters admitting his guilt, and an expert testified they had been composed in Cope’s handwriting.
Only later, Brackett said, did Cope and his lawyers claim those confessions were false.
The DNA evidence proved Sanders’ involvement, prosecutors said, and the confessions and other evidence proved Cope’s involvement.
The trial went back and forth. Prosecutors pointed at Cope and Sanders, Cope’s lawyers pointed at Sanders and police. Faced with the mountain of DNA against his client, Sanders’ lawyer, Leland Greeley, maintained that Cope had molested Amanda repeatedly, his rage finally turning to murder.
The crime against Amanda was not sexual gratification, Greeley argued, but mutilation – and Cope did it.
Late on the night of Sept. 22, 2004, the jury came back with unanimous guilty verdicts against Cope and Sanders.
Sanders claimed to have been railroaded. Cope said he was innocent, pointing at Sanders when he said, “He killed my daughter.”
Judge Hayes sentenced both men to life in prison, plus 30 years. Cope was sent to prison, where he has been ever since.
Cope’s lawyers pledged to keep fighting, filing an immediate appeal.
Six years later, the “Dateline NBC” newsmagazine show aired a special on the case that questioned the fairness of Cope’s trial. Cope’s legal team had been talking with “Dateline” producers for months before the trial. “Dateline” recorded the entire trial, but waited years to air the special.
Prosecutors called the TV special a hatchet job, and within days of its release they created a website – billywaynecope.com – with the title, “Still Guilty,” and subtitle, “Amanda Renee Cope – The REAL Victim.”
NBC has aired the show many times since. Innocence projects and high-profile defense lawyers and legal scholars have taken up Cope’s cause. A “Free Billy Wayne Cope” Facebook page and other sites popped up.
Just a year ago, the state Supreme Court was sharply divided, issuing a 3-2 ruling in August 2013 that Cope had received a fair trial. In their own opinion, the two dissenting justices wrote that the jury should have heard evidence about Sanders’ prior bad acts.
What happens now?
His own appeals rejected, Sanders, now 55, will die in jail. If Cope gets a new trial, he might be called back to York County to testify.
After the narrow loss in the state Supreme Court, lawyers for Cope, now 51, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide if the trial was fair. Defense lawyers and defense-leaning law professors have sent in piles of briefs backing Cope.
In June, the court instructed lawyers for both sides to send the 3,000-plus pages of transcripts, evidence and notes from the 2004 trial to Washington for a review by the justices.
That review is now almost over.
A decade ago, Jim Morton told the court he would never stop fighting to prove Billy Wayne Cope’s innocence. So far, he has kept his word.
A decade ago, Kevin Brackett told the court that Billy Wayne Cope was guilty of serving up his own daughter for his own pleasure, and that Amanda had been subject to repeated sexual abuse before she finally was killed.
A decade ago, 12 jurors unanimously agreed with Brackett – and a majority of every appeals court since has confirmed their verdict.
One last court – the highest court in the land – remains.