An opossum trained to guard money. A crowbar used to scratch an itch before a fatal beating. A phony alibi that included a trip to see a Confederate submarine. The murder suspect's stories had it all.
But jurors who heard Henry James Fickling Jr.'s tales this week in a Charleston County courtroom didn't believe him. They instead found him guilty of murder.
A homicide investigation began when Fickling reported he'd found his roommate dead, possibly from a seizure, after returning from a visit to the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley in 2016.
When that story fell apart, Fickling claimed self-defense. He confessed to beating the victim — Jeffrey Todd Shiver, a 41-year-old described in court testimony as an excessive drinker who prosecutors said wasn't a physical threat — but only after he claimed Shiver punched him first during a quarrel over money at Fickling's North Charleston home.
Prosecutors during Fickling's murder trial this week contended that he marched into Shiver's bedroom clutching a crowbar and a Taser on Sept. 13, 2016. They alleged he provoked the fatal attack because Shiver was about to discover that Fickling had been stealing his money to the tune of $1,300.
The jury had the option to convict Fickling, 58, on a lesser count of voluntary manslaughter but ultimately agreed with prosecutors on the murder conviction. Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson on Thursday sentenced the convicted sex offender to life in prison without parole.
"Jeff was gonna find out the defendant was stealing his money," Assistant Solicitor Richard Waring said during closing arguments at the Charleston County courthouse. "In the defendant’s mind, Jeff could not ... leave that room alive."
Fickling took the stand and testified that he had trained an opossum to guard a slush fund stashed under his mobile home northeast of Park Circle. He worked odd jobs and said he collected $720 a month in disability and Social Security assistance. He was thousands of dollars behind on child support payments.
Assistant Public Defender Jason King acknowledged that Fickling made some bad choices after the killing, during which he was high on crack cocaine.
"But that doesn’t mean that he is guilty of murder," King told the jury in his closing argument.
Authorities said Fickling waited 12 hours to report Shiver's death at his home at 5036 Hyde Ave., where he lived with roommates and his common-law wife, Allura Lynne Boyd. Before calling 911, prosecutors said he instructed Boyd to check the balance on Shiver's bank account, traded Shiver's car for crack and took a joyride on his recently purchased moped.
Fickling also told Boyd, 53, to lie to police and say that the two of them found Shiver motionless after returning from a ride on the moped. Boyd was arrested for being an accessory after murder and pleaded guilty in January.
On the day of the slaying, prosecutors said Shiver was likely on his bed when Fickling entered his room. His trachea was crushed and he suffered broken ribs, an injury consistent with a burn mark and blunt force trauma to his lower back. Fickling had no injuries except a scratch on his hand.
Shiver's DNA was found on the Taser. Waring questioned why, if Fickling was the one attacked, he would arm himself with a crowbar. Fickling said he brought the crowbar into the room to scratch his leg.