COLUMBIA — As South Carolina comes to grips with the recent kidnapping and killing of a college student, the case could provide one of the first high-profile tests for the new top prosecutor in Richland County, where experts say convincing juries to sentence someone to death can be more difficult than in other parts of the state.
The State Law Enforcement Division revealed Monday that 21-year-old University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson died of multiple sharp force injuries after she mistakenly got into a car that she thought was her Uber ride. She suffered wounds from her head to her feet, according to the arrest warrant.
Josephson's death stunned the college community and made national news, prompting many on social media to immediately call for 24-year-old suspect Nathaniel Rowland, facing murder and kidnapping charges, to receive the death penalty. His court appearance is April 22, the 5th Circuit Solicitor's office said.
Gipson told The Post and Courier on Monday that it’s too early to say how he’ll pursue sentencing in Josephson’s death, but in general he said he is open to considering the death penalty.
“It is a penalty that is still enforced in this state,” Gipson said. “So on a case-by-case basis, if the case merits us looking into it, I would be doing a disservice to the citizens of the Fifth Circuit if I didn’t look at it. It’s something we’ve got to consider.”
But if he does end up choosing to pursue the death penalty, the argument may face a difficult path in Columbia.
State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who was 5th Circuit solicitor in the 1990s, said Richland County juries tend be a more skeptical audience for death penalty cases than some other areas of the state, due in part to the county's relatively liberal political leanings.
"Is it impossible? No," Harpootlian said. "Are they tougher to convince to give the death penalty than perhaps Lexington County or Greenville County or York County? Absolutely. But there are cases that are so egregious that a Richland County jury will sentence somebody to death."
Of the 36 inmates on death row in South Carolina, just one of those cases was prosecuted in Richland County, the state's second most populated county. That inmate, Quincy Jovan Allen, was convicted of two killings a month apart in 2002.
What will be key to a potential death sentence in Richland County, Harpootlian said, will be a strongly argued case with direct evidence.
"You’ve got to have a strong case and you’ve got to present it in the right way," Harpootlian said. "It is not an easy task."
Some Columbia-area lawmakers oppose the death penalty in all cases out of principle. State Rep. Seth Rose, a lawyer whose district includes the Five Points neighborhood where the early Friday morning abduction occurred, said he is "not a fan" of capital punishment.
"There are a lot of disgusting acts that take place across the United States," said Rose, D-Columbia. "Life without parole is certainly on the table, but I don’t advocate or support the death penalty."
State Rep. Todd Rutherford, a former assistant 5th Circuit solicitor, said it is "way too early" to determine whether the death penalty would be the right sentence to pursue in the Rowland case.
"Feelings are high right now and people are upset, as they should be," said Rutherford, D-Columbia. "But as we take a look at it and figure out what to do with it, I’m positive that the solicitor’s going to make the right decision.”
While Rutherford said the death penalty may be appropriate in some cases, he agreed with Harpootlian that juries in the state's capital county may be a hard crowd to sell on the sentence.
“I’m not a bloodthirsty, hang-em-high kind of guy, and I don’t think Richland County is either," Rutherford said.
South Carolina has not executed any death row inmates since 2011, as they all still have appeals pending. But even if an inmate exhausted all appeals, the state would be unable to execute them due to the lack of access to the necessary drugs for a lethal injection.
Under pressure from activists who oppose the death penalty, companies that make lethal injection drugs have stopped openly selling them, and South Carolina's previous batch has expired.
Lawmakers have spent the past few years considering ways to get around that issue, including giving authorities the ability to execute death row inmates by electric chair or a firing squad.
The state Senate passed a bill to make that change in January, and state Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, said he plans to push for a hearing on it in the House in the coming weeks. Tallon said Josephson's murder could reinvigorate efforts to ensure that the state can follow through on death sentences.
"Legislation can get momentum when something as emotional as this happens," Tallon said.