Solicitor: ‘No credible evidence’ of corruption in drug arrest

State law agents and deputies survey the scene where Jesse Sapp fatally shot Highway Patrol Cpl. Jeff Johnson in July 2002 near Goose Creek.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson this week deflected accusations that Berkeley County sheriff’s deputies illegally swayed witness testimony in the sentencing phase for a state trooper’s killer.

Wilson’s stance came in her response to a request to dismiss a death sentence for Jesse Sapp, who fatally shot Highway Patrol Cpl. Jeff Johnson in July 2002.

The allegation of witness intimidation that Public Defender Ashley Pennington brought to federal authorities in 2011 sparked an FBI corruption probe into now-former sheriff’s officials. The probe is said to be ongoing.

But this week, Wilson said there is “no credible evidence” that in 2007, Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office members planted methamphetamine-making materials in a home to frame Kathryn Boles, Sapp’s former girlfriend who was expected to testify in his resentencing hearing.

Sapp was sentenced to die at the end of his 2003 trial, but a judge later overturned the penalty because of errors in the sentencing phase and ordered a new proceeding.

Boles could testify that Sapp was bent on “suicide by cop” when he opened fire on Johnson at a roadblock near Goose Creek, according to Pennington, and that one of the troopers who fired back at Sapp shot him while he was in handcuffs — both possible “mitigating” factors that could save Sapp’s life at resentencing. But deputies’ intimidation of Boles through her arrest on meth charges made her fear testifying for the defense, Pennington has said in paperwork.

“Even if the defendant could prove Ms. Boles were wrongly arrested, there is no credible evidence of a link to this case or its impact on this case,” Wilson wrote this week in response to Pennington’s motion.

Any intimidation of Boles didn’t matter, Wilson further explained, because she was available to testify this week despite the allegation. Boles took the stand during a hearing Thursday in downtown Charleston, but it was unknown when Judge Markley Dennis would rule on Pennington’s motion.

Sapp sits on death row at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville.

From 2011 to at least 2014, FBI agents looked into accusations and a grand jury heard from sheriff’s officials, but the probe has resulted in no arrests related to the allegation Pennington reported. During the investigation, though, Deputy Tony Riley was arrested after FBI agents said he sold two guns to a federal informant.

Some sheriff’s officials also resigned, and some later returned, but the agency has said that their departures were unrelated.

Pennington has said in court documents that the FBI’s work prevented him from investigating the allegation in Sapp’s case. But Wilson countered that the defense chose to put off its own probe, and during the delay, other witnesses, including the sheriff’s informant said to have planted evidence in Boles’ home, died.

That left Pennington’s motion, according to Wilson, to be based largely on the word of an unreliable and biased witness, Boles, an admitted chronic cocaine and meth user with memory problems and a prostitute since age 15. She has remained in touch with Sapp by telephone and Facebook, Wilson added.

Wilson said it would have been “nearly impossible” for Boles to see a trooper shoot Sapp while he was handcuffed.

Boles also claimed to have told the story to the original prosecutors, who refused to turn over the information to Sapp’s defense team in 2003. Three witnesses, though, denied her claims, according to Wilson.

The prosecutor acknowledged that the Sheriff’s Office drug case that put Boles behind bars was “not exemplary” but did not indicate corruption.

The paid informant who accused a sheriff’s deputy during an FBI interview also should not be believed, Wilson added, because he used drugs and possibly developed a reason to seek revenge against the lawmen he once worked with.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.