RIDGEVILLE — Heavily fenced in and guarded on the outskirts of Ridgeville lies Lieber Correctional Institution. Among the criminal offenders housed within are 40 inmates even more isolated than the rest.
A monotonous existence awaits those condemned to the corridors of death row. Having committed the most egregious of crimes against others across the state, these men now spend the bulk of their time alone.
They eat and sleep in single cells. The lucky ones get an hour of recreation time a day, often spent exercising or reaching through the bars that divide them to play a game of checkers with a neighboring inmate.
“You rarely hear any of them talking about the death penalty or what they have coming up,” said the prison’s warden, Joseph McFadden. Those conversations are reserved for private talks with psychologists and clergymen who come to visit from time to time, he said.
Forty-three state-ordered killings over the past four decades have earned South Carolina a ranking of seventh, per capita, among the 36 states that used the death penalty in that time, Death Penalty Information Center records show.
Punishment does not come swiftly. Lengthy judicial hearings in the appellate process can take years, sometimes decades, to navigate. And it is costly — an estimated average of $1.1 million more than pursuing life without parole.
The death-row inmates currently housed at Lieber have been in the Department of Corrections system an average of about 14 years, state records show. Meanwhile, the families they’ve victimized are left chasing closure, forced to relive their horrors with each new court date.
This is the world of Marion Bowman, who, in 2001, shot a young Orangeburg mother to death with a .380-caliber pistol and set her remains on fire because she owed him money.
And William Dickerson Jr., who burned a man, cut him 200 times, knocked out his teeth and sexually assaulted him with multiple objects before finally strangling him on James Island in 2006.
And John Edward Weik, who in 1998 cut down his former girlfriend with shotgun blasts while her two children hid in a nearby bathroom at her home in Knightsville.
And Jesse Sapp, who reportedly killed himself last week while awaiting a new sentence for killing a Highway Patrol trooper during a 2002 traffic stop on College Park Road, bringing an end to an appellate process that spanned 12 years.
It’s the world that could await Dylann Roof if he’s convicted and sentenced to death in the killing of nine parishioners while they worshipped in June at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson last month announced her intentions to seek the death penalty in the case, described by some as the deadliest hate crime in South Carolina’s history.
“This was the ultimate crime,” Wilson said, “and justice from our state calls for the ultimate punishment.”
Many watched and were touched by words of forgiveness uttered by families of the Emanuel victims during a bond hearing for Roof. Their faith, they said, is what gave them the strength to do so.
That same faith prevents many of the families from supporting capital punishment, Wilson said while announcing her decision.
Still, some others seek closure in the wake of tragedy through calls for the harshest possible penalty.
“She didn’t deserve to lose her life,” said Cordelia Martin, the Orangeburg mother of the 21-year-old woman killed by Bowman.
An execution won’t bring her daughter back, Martin said, but Bowman needs to be punished.
“That’s the only way I’m going to get closure,” she said.
Fourteen years have passed since Kandee Martin’s body was found in the trunk of a burned car in the woods of Dorchester County. But resolution in the case has escaped the woman’s family.
The ordeal has been a source of constant stress for the grieving mother and her husband.
“I don’t understand why it’s lasted this long,” she said.
Bowman has repeatedly argued through appeals that he didn’t receive a fair trial, alleging, among other things, that a search of his home that netted evidence in the case wasn’t warranted. Attempts to overturn his conviction and sentence so far have failed.
Keeping track of the numerous court proceedings over the years is a responsibility that has fallen on Martin’s husband. Standing in the same room as the man who stole her daughter’s life is something Martin said she can’t bring herself to do.
“It just got to be too much for me,” she said.
The convicted killer was someone her family had trusted. Bowman went to school with her children and worked for her husband, Martin said. If Kandee Martin had owed the man money, as Bowman had claimed in court, her parents would have paid had he come to them.
“That’s no excuse to kill someone, especially a girl who’s just starting her life,” Martin said.
Sitting through Bowman’s trial was a “horrible” experience for the woman.
“He was sitting up there laughing and everything,” Martin said. “He was going to get off, he said. He was going to make it to biker’s weekend and everything.”
A jury convicted Bowman on murder and third-degree arson charges in May 2002. Bowman’s cockiness was soon replaced with tears at the reading of his sentence, Martin said.
But the family’s victory is now well over a decade old. A preliminary execution date for the man came and went.
With no apparent end in sight, all Kandee Martin’s loved ones can do is wait.
“It’s hard on me, it’s hard on her father and it’s hard on her brothers and sisters. She was a big part of our life. When he took her, he took a part of me,” Martin said. “They should have taken care of this.”
After 16 years on death row, the fate of inmate John Edward Weik is even less certain.
The state Supreme Court last year granted Weik a new sentencing hearing, citing concerns regarding the strength of his defense during his original trial. The decision put into question whether Weik will be put to death for his brutal attack on Susan Krasae, the mother of his child, or whether his penalty will be reduced to life behind bars.
Former 1st Circuit Solicitor Walter Bailey notified Weik of his intentions to seek the death penalty in the summer of 1998.
It was a decision he made roughly 20 times during his 11-year stint in office, he said.
As a prosecutor, he said, pursuit of the ultimate punishment begins with familiarizing yourself with the harrowing details of the case.
An “aggravating circumstance” is required by state law to heighten a homicide to that level. Kidnapping a victim, performing some act of torture or sexual assault, harming a child and killing during the commission of an armed robbery or burglary would all qualify, he said, among other factors.
Bailey pored over the details contained in Weik’s file after Krasae’s death. When he was done, he said, he was certain that the slaying warranted capital punishment.
“He killed her in cold blood. ... And he did it in a manner where the first shot would hurt her, but it wouldn’t be fatal,” Bailey said.
Bailey served notice of his intentions with the family’s support and the facts on his side, he said.
So when the state Supreme Court decided to vacate Weik’s sentence more than a decade later, he was left feeling somewhat confused, he said.
During trial, defense attorneys presented multiple expert witnesses who attested to Weik’s mental health, which included a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, auditory and visual hallucinations, suicidal ideations and paranoid delusions, a written Supreme Court opinion on the case read.
The court was compelled, though, by the effect that being raised by an abusive father, who also suffered from mental illness, had on the killing, according to court documents.
“Ninety percent of that opinion dealt with the mental status of Weik’s father. That was the most confusing aspect for me. Everyone knew he had mental health issues. The jury had that information beforehand,” Bailey said.
The criticism that comes through the appellate process is necessary, Bailey maintained, despite the turn in the case.
“Death penalty cases have a lot of scrutiny, and they ought to because there’s no going back once someone’s executed,” he said.
He said the process often forces defense attorneys to build cases not based on what’s best for their clients but by what will satisfy an appellate court down the road.
Of the 20-odd times that Bailey pursued capital punishment, he recalled roughly 14 of those cases ending in death penalty sentences. The amount seemed like a lot at the time, he said. The rate at which the sentence has been granted has steadily declined nationwide over the years.
“The cases are just as bad now,” he said, “it’s just that the individual solicitor has the sole discretion. Some prosecutors have a tendency to do more of them than others do. It all depends,” Bailey said. “It’s very expensive and it’s very time-consuming. Those are the main reasons not to pursue it.”
The death penalty cases he prosecuted, however, were worth the expense, he said.
Asked whether the decision to pursue death has ever weighed heavy on his own conscious, Bailey responded that it’s not his decision alone to make.
“I’ve got to convince 12 jurors and a judge. It takes 13 people to grant a death sentence,” Bailey said. “I haven’t had any regrets or lost any sleep.”
Ron Kaz, however, has spent the past 35 years actively fighting against capital punishment.
The penalty, Kaz said, is one he can’t accept on principle. The James Island man co-chairs advocacy group South Carolinians Abolishing the Death Penalty.
“I don’t think you can solve any problems by killing people,” he said. “Secondly, I don’t believe government has the right to be killing people. The whole idea of the death penalty is contrary to the idea of human rights.”
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws surrounding capital punishment at the time were largely unconstitutional. New laws began to surface across the nation by 1976, to Kaz’s dismay, he said.
“The way it’s been used in this country is so problematic, even people who support the death penalty need to think about what’s going on,” Kaz said. “The system is racist, classist, it doesn’t work, they don’t get the right people and it’s way more expensive than being sentenced to life. There are just so many problems with it, it’s ridiculous.”
Of the 282 inmates killed by the state since 1912, 74 were white and 208 were black, according to the Corrections Department.
A study on South Carolina’s death-penalty practices that was published in 2006 found racial disparities in the system. Of South Carolina’s homicides over a five-year period in the mid- to late 1990s, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 1.2 percent of cases involving a black defendant and a black victim compared with 9.7 percent of cases involving a black defendant and white victim, according to the study. Also, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 6.7 percent of cases involving a white defendant and white victim compared with 2.6 percent of cases involving a white defendant and black victim, the study found.
For Isaac Unah, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who coauthored the study, the results raised questions about the value placed on minority lives, both as offenders and victims.
“It’s pretty striking when you think about it,” Unah said. “When I did this research, my motivation was not to go out there and help death-row inmates. It’s just an issue I think needed some critical examination.”
More than 150 death-row inmates have been exonerated nationwide since 1976, Kaz said.
“That’s an error rate of more than 10 percent. If one hot dog in every pack was no good, they’d stop selling those hot dogs,” Kaz said. “Yet we keep killing people, even though the record shows we can’t get it right.”
Years of appeals do little to spare innocents caught in the system, he said.
“What people don’t understand about the appellate process is that it’s designed to make sure the law is followed, not to make sure the person is guilty,” Kaz said. “They can go ahead and execute an innocent person as long as they follow the rules.”
The average length of time it takes for a death row inmate to be exonerated is nine years, Kaz said.
“If you speed up the process, then you increase the number of innocent people who are going to be executed. Every time you execute the wrong person, the guilty murderer is still running around out there,” Kaz said.
South Carolina’s execution chamber at Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia — a gurney, backed by a brick wall and flanked by curtains with a glass window separating it from witness seating — has sat unused since 2011.
The state’s supply of a drug cocktail used for lethal injection expired in 2013. In the meantime, South Carolina has no means of executing death-row inmates unless they agree to the state’s other allowed method: electrocution.
Only three of the 39 death-row inmates put to death in South Carolina have opted for electrocution since lethal injection was brought into practice in 1995, Corrections Department records show.
“We continue to look for alternatives and acquire the drugs used in our procedure,” Corrections spokeswoman Stephanie Givens said of the state’s status to address the situation.
Until the issue is resolved, those condemned to death row remain at Lieber, biding their time under McFadden’s watchful eye as the clock winds down.
For McFadden, death-row or not, the inmates under his charge are one and the same.
“My approach is simple,” McFadden said. “Treat everyone with respect, but at the same time understand that I do have a job to do, and try to do it to the best of my ability.”
Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908.