In the past year, three murderers sentenced by Dorchester County juries to die by lethal injection or electrocution have been granted reprieves - one commuted to life in prison and two others granted new sentencing hearings.
"There is an expression that 'death is different,' meaning death penalty cases get more appellate scrutiny than other cases," said 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who prosecutes cases in Dorchester, Orangeburg and Calhoun counties. "This is very understandable given the circumstances of the consequences, but it doesn't make it better for the families of victims who get no justice or closure."
While it's not unusual for capital punishment cases to be sent back for new sentencing hearings or even overturned, Pascoe said, it's often difficult to track down witnesses to crimes committed many years ago. And that's assuming the survivors are willing to relive the crimes by testifying or sitting through another trial or hearing.
None of the three Dorchester County death row cases involved errors by the trial judge or misdeeds by the prosecutor. Instead, two successfully argued their defense attorneys had not represented them adequately at trial or in the sentencing phase and the third was resentenced to life without parole because of his mental condition.
None of the higher court rulings frees any of the three inmates, although one facing resentencing, Timothy Rogers, could eventually be eligible for parole if he gets life instead of the death penalty.
Abusive childhood defense
John Edward Weik hovered over the mother of his child as he wielded a shotgun. He fired the gun four times at 27-year-old Susan Hutto Krasae. The first shot nearly severed her arm. A shotgun pellet fractured her right jawbone. The shots to her chest killed her.
On May 27, 1999, a jury found him guilty of murder. The next day they sentenced him to death.
After exhausting his appeals, Weik filed for post-conviction relief, claiming his attorneys did not present enough evidence during sentencing to properly portray his troubled upbringing.
Attorney Michael O'Connell, who worked on Weik's post-conviction relief case, argued that testimony and evidence that had not been presented at his death penalty hearing would have shown how "chaotic" and dysfunctional his childhood had been.
A judge denied the post-conviction relief request for a new sentencing hearing, but it was granted on appeal by the S.C. Supreme Court earlier this week.
The Supreme Court ruled that Weik's abusive childhood, "saturated with violence," was not presented properly during his original sentencing hearing.
"I'm not minimizing the pain the victim's family went through," O'Connell said. "I understand it's there. I'm a human being besides being a lawyer.
"But not everyone who commits murder should be sentenced to death."
Pascoe said he will consult with Krasae's family to determine whether they'll go after the death penalty again. Otherwise, Weik will spend the rest of his life behind bars without the possibility of parole.
"You really get no closure in some of these cases," Pascoe said.
The case will be costly and time consuming - a jury will have to be convened, so witnesses have to be tracked down and evidence needs to be dusted off.
"Anytime cases like this one come back it is a financial burden on the office but it pales in comparison to what the family of the victims go through," Pascoe said.
Weik's case is one of at least two death penalty cases Pascoe will have to handle.
In September, the South Carolina Supreme Court refused to hear Timothy Rogers' request for post-conviction relief, but sent it back to Dorchester County for a resentencing hearing.
In 1994 Rogers, now 46, was sentenced to death for the Nov. 25, 1992, murder of 9-year-old Stephanie Burditt, who he shot in the head outside a Summerville grocery store.
Burditt was in her father's truck, which was parked in front of a grocery store, Her father, Michael Burditt, and Rogers, who had walked up to the store, began arguing, possibly about the use of a pay phone. The argument continued as Burditt got into his truck, and Rogers, then 24, pointed a gun at Burditt's head and threatened to kill him.
As Burditt drove off, Rogers fired at the truck. The shot pierced the back window and struck Stephanie Burditt in the head. She was taken to a hospital but died the next day.
Rogers was granted a new sentencing hearing in 1996 and a jury, once again, sentenced him to death.
However, after claiming ineffective counsel, he was granted a third sentencing hearing. No hearing date has been set.
A third death row inmate also could end up getting a new hearing. Kenneth Simmons, 53, who had been sentenced to death in Dorchester County in 1999, was resentenced to life without parole after a higher court ruled he should not be executed because he is mentally challenged.
The state is appealing the court's decision. Depending on the outcome in the appeal, Simmons could wind up before a Dorchester County jury for resentencing.
Simmons was convicted of murder in the Sept. 1, 1996, robbery, rape, torture and killing of 87-year-old Lily Bell Boyd in her Summerville home.
In a taped confession, Simmons told police that he had been smoking crack cocaine and drinking beer for hours before he rode a bicycle to Boyd's West Luke Street home and robbed her to buy more crack.
After Boyd gave him cash, Simmons beat her with a stick he found on her porch, then raped and strangled her.
Her body was found in the kitchen later that Sunday. Boyd had been gagged and beaten bloody, her wrists and feet bound and her ribs fractured in 14 places.
Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.