Hilma Duncan knows her younger brother wasn't a saint, but she is determined to clear his name of the murder charge that haunted him.
Her brother, Paul Mazzell, died last week at age 82 after a long bout with cancer. He took ill soon after his parole from prison in November 2005, but it didn't stop the Hanahan man from fighting to overturn the murder conviction that kept him behind bars for 23 years.
"He went to his grave trying to clear his name," she said. "There was lots of stuff he went to prison for that he was guilty of. But not the last time. He was as innocent of that as I am."
The parole board cited Mazzell's advanced age and declining health in its decision to release him from the life sentence he received for the 1978 killing of Ricky Seagraves in Charleston County.
But Duncan contends that the parole board was swayed by a letter that bolstered Mazzell's claims of innocence.
After his release, Mazzell tried to get former state Attorney General Henry McMaster to open a new investigation into Seagraves' killing, but his letters and a petition drive appear to have come to naught.
"I am not aware of any investigative request made by Attorney General McMaster concerning Mr. Mazzell," said Mark Plowden, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. "From our perspective, he was convicted, jailed, and there really isn't anything more to the story."
Mazzell held a deep grudge against former 9th Circuit Solicitor Charlie Condon, whose office handled his prosecution. Condon, who went on to become state attorney general, said Monday that the evidence clearly pointed to Mazzell's guilt, and the conviction held strong despite numerous appeals by Mazzell's legal team.
Duncan said her brother had a bad streak and ran afoul of the law, but he was no killer. Duncan, who is 84, said she will press on to clear his name in the Seagraves murder.
"Paul was mean for years. He was mean before Charlie Condon was even born," she said. "I'm not taking up for that part of him. But he was never into violence."
Duncan said she and her brother grew up in poverty during the Great Depression and he hated being poor. Handsome, strong and hard-working, he tried to join the Army at age 17 and later ran his own vegetable stands. But somewhere along the way, he "got ahold of the easy dollar and that was it," she said.
In interviews with The Post and Courier, Mazzell acknowledged being a thief and a hustler who didn't mind bending the law to suit his purposes, but he always denied the organized-crimes ties attributed to him.
He also insisted another man fatally shot Seagraves, 29, who had been kidnapped from a store near his Ladson home in October 1978. Mazzell maintained that his involvement was limited to helping dispose of the body after Seagraves was dead and "stiff as a board."
Duncan said she loved her brother dearly and spent thousands of dollars on lawyers trying to get him out of prison. "I worked in a sewing factory for 44 years to make a living and I saved every bit of it. And all of it went to helping my brother."
He eventually won parole, but just a short time after his release he came down with a bad case of shingles, Duncan said. Blood tests determined that he had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and he spent the past several years in and out of hospitals and nursing homes.
He died March 29, one day after returning home from his most recent medical stay, she said. Duncan said she held her brother as he died, and she took comfort knowing he had reconnected with his seven children and asked God to forgive his sins. "He got his soul straight," she said. "I take it from that he is with the Lord."