Men get life in deputy slaying

Jacoby Fields (center) puts his head in his hands as he and attorneys Andrew Carroll (left) and Boyd Young listen in court Wednesday. Fields and Travis J. Harris could have faced the death penalty but agreed to plead guilty and were sentenced to life without parole.

WALTERBORO -- As teenagers, they broke into homes and stole guns, trashed a sheriff's substation and murdered a deputy. As young men, they chose to accept life sentences for their crimes.

On Wednesday, Jacoby Fields, a Walterboro man, and Travis Javon Harris, a Smoaks man, admitted to murder, second-degree burglary involving violence and four counts of first-degree burglary from their crime spree in the summer of 2008. Fields and Harris received 15 years in prison on the second-degree burglary charges and life sentences without the possibility of parole on each of the other crimes.

Their pleas reflected a deal because both men, now in their early 20s, faced a possible death penalty if convicted at trial.

Fields wore a brown sweater and khaki pants that nearly covered his ankle shackles. He spoke in quiet tones, answering, "Yes, ma'am," to the judge's questions. Harris wore a tan jail jumpsuit and spoke clearly and confidently when questioned.

Solicitor Duffie Stone said the pair began their tear through Colleton County on June 18, 2008, when they broke into a Walterboro home and stole a shotgun and a bullet-proof vest from the military officer who lived there. The next night, Stone said, they broke into another Walterboro home, but the 80-year-old woman who lived there caught them by surprise.

Stone said Fields, then 18, and Harris, then 19, fled through the window but first stole a long gun from the woman's home.

On Aug. 5, 2008, the pair broke into the Colleton County Sheriff's Office substation in Smoaks, according to Stone. They ransacked the office and stole some files, Stone said.

Early the next morning, they broke into a home near Smoaks and tripped a burglar alarm. As the two stole jewelry from the house on Sunflower Drive, sheriff's Deputy Dennis Compton walked in.

Stone said either Fields or Harris shot 39-year-old Compton with the shotgun they stole in the first burglary. The pair fled but robbed another Walterboro home less than a month later, this time making off with a rifle, according to Stone.

He said investigators found stolen items at Harris' home and in a car belonging to Fields' girlfriend. Stone added that Fields and Harris both blamed each other for the shooting.

Stone said he wanted both men treated equally and both to die in prison.

"The only two people in the whole world who know who the triggerman was are these two men standing before you," he said.

Judge Carmen Mullen explained to the men that their presence at a burglary that ended in the deputy's death made them both culpable.

"The hand of one is the hand of all," she said.

Compton's mother said she hopes the men spend every day reliving the horror they committed against her son, while Compton's sister said members of her church pray for Fields and Harris every day.

One of Harris' attorneys, Dudley Ruffalo, called the life sentence a opportunity for redemption.

"It's up to God to separate the truly wicked from the misguided," he said. His client quoted the South Carolina state motto, "While I breathe, I hope," and then added, "And it ain't over."

The men have 10 days to appeal the sentence.

Colleton County Sheriff George Malone called the day Compton died the worst day of his time with the department and apologized to the deputy's family for not protecting him better.

"That's my confession for today," the sheriff said. "I have to live with that."

Tabatha Compton, Dennis Compton's wife, said after the hearing that Wednesday marked what would have been the fifth anniversary of their marriage.

"They have to live with what they did," Compton said. "Now, we can start to rebuild our lives."

Before leaving the courthouse grounds, she touched a finger to her lips and then to a shiny law enforcement memorial with "Dennis Compton" etched in one of the squares.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or on Twitter at @allysonjbird.