Unfair Trial

The Supreme Court Must Right the Wrong Done to Billy Wayne Cope

He offered inconsistent confessions for his daughter’s murder, and the DNA of another man—a serial rapist—was found at the crime scene. But South Carolina was determined to convict. Now the Supreme Court can bring him justice.

06.19.14 9:45 AM ET

In their conference Thursday morning, the justices of the United States Supreme Court will consider for review the case of a South Carolina man whose murder conviction and life sentence are among the least defensible you will ever see. The story of Billy Wayne Cope, indeed, is really the story of a group of state officials so determined to defend and justify the results of a patently unfair trial that they have contorted both law and fact to do so.

Cope’s story began on November 29, 2001, when his 12-year-old daughter was found beaten, sexually assaulted, and strangled to death in her bed. The next day, Cope, a morbidly obese, socially isolated white man, a man who at first told the police that his child died because the Rapture came to her, began to confess to the crime. This he did only after he had repeatedly denied involvement in his daughter’s death and only after he was told by the police that he had failed a lie detector test, a test Cope asked the police to give him, the results of which are still in question.

He confessed three times, asking whether he might have committed the crime in his sleep, providing inconsistent details each time he opened his mouth to the police, and never once mentioning that he may have had a partner in crime. As they always do in cases like this, the police searched for and found DNA on the young victim. They found saliva on a bite mark on her neck and semen on her pant leg. And no doubt they were sure that the DNA would match Cope and that would be that—an easy case where the confession matched the physical evidence.

But the DNA did not belong to Cope. It belonged to another man. The police discovered this wrinkle in the case weeks after Cope’s confession, but it would be nine more months before they identified the man to whom the DNA belonged—James Sanders, a black man, a drug abuser and serial criminal, a man who had no known connection to Cope, who had been paroled from a North Carolina prison weeks before the murder of Cope’s daughter.

By the time the police caught up to Sanders, they knew even more about his patterns and practices. In the six weeks following the Cope murder, Sanders had committed at least four burglaries and other sexual assaults in the same community where the Copes lived. Three of those crimes took place within a mile of the Cope home. Prosecuting Sanders for the murder of the little Cope girl was a no-brainer. Figuring out a way to prosecute both Billy Wayne Cope and James Sanders for the same crime, however, proved to be more difficult. There was no evidence the men had ever met until they were tried together.

What would you have done as a prosecutor in these circumstances? Here’s what South Carolina officials did. Instead of recognizing Cope’s confessions for what they were—false, confused statements made by an addled father in the throes of despair—they sought to link Cope and Sanders together in a deadly conspiracy. “The only logical explanation is that Billy Cope served up his daughter for his and…Sanders’ own perverse pleasures and took her life,” Cope’s prosecutor said in the opening statement of his trial. South Carolina’s theory was that Cope invited a complete stranger to his home that night to rape and murder one of his three daughters.

Fair enough, you might be thinking at this point. Prosecutors would come to trial with Cope’s confessions. Cope’s lawyers would come to trial with the clear evidence of the pattern Sanders had established of breaking into homes in Cope’s neighborhood and sexually assaulting female victims in the course of nighttime burglaries. And jurors would be able to evaluate the evidence on both sides of the case and render a reasoned verdict. What’s more likely? That this man raped and killed his own daughter while his other two daughters lay sleeping and then confessed inconsistently about it? Or that a serial rapist prowling the neighborhood, whose semen was found at the crime scene, committed the crime?

But this testing of the evidence never happened. Cope’s trial judge, a dubious jurist named John C. Hayes III, precluded Cope’s jurors from hearing about Sanders’s other crimes because, he ruled, they were not similar enough to the rape and murder of the little Cope girl. Nor did Judge Hayes permit Cope to tell jurors that Sanders had made incriminating statements to a fellow inmate about “what he did to that little girl in Rock Hill.” Predictably, hearing not remotely close to the whole story about Sanders and Cope, the jury quickly convicted Cope (and, of course, Sanders as well).

That was a decade ago. Since then, as the case has wended its way through the appellate courts, South Carolina has stubbornly defended the dubious result here by making two preposterous claims; 1) that Judge Hayes’s decision to preclude evidence of Sanders’s other crimes, and his jailhouse confessions, did not deprive Cope of a “meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense” and; 2) that the jury would have been “confused” and “prejudiced” had it heard the truth about Sanders. Again, put yourself in the role of a juror in the case. Do you think such evidence would have helped you reach an accurate result?

It’s hard to imagine this tortured logic surviving a decade of appeal except that we see it all the time in these wrongful-conviction cases. Law enforcement officials started with the proposition that Cope was guilty because of his shaky “confessions.” And when confronted with unassailable evidence that contradicted their theory—Sanders’ DNA at the crime scene, for example—those officials failed or refused to look anew at the evidence before them. Instead, they doubled down on their theory of Cope’s guilt even as it became more disconnected from reality. Given what we now know about false confessions, especially, the record here is shocking.

The prosecutors here did what many prosecutors do. But the courts are supposed to act as a check on such excesses. This Judge Hayes did not remotely do—and not for the first time. Indeed, Judge Hayes’s lawless approach to due process for criminal defendants led a unanimous Supreme Court, in 2006 in a case styled Holmes v. South Carolina, to admonish his failure to permit jurors to consider material relevant information offered up by the defense. Sound familiar? If anything, Judge Hayes’ errors in the Cope case are far more obvious and egregious than were his errors in the Holmes case.

(For more on the travails of Judge Hayes in criminal cases, for more examples of his sense of justice, check out a local story this week about him taking what he called a “mulligan” and ordering DNA testing in a 1981 case.)

The last word here goes not to prosecutors, or to the defense, or to the hapless judge, but to a group of law professors, specializing in evidence, who have asked the justices to accept Cope’s case and bring him relief. The purpose of the rule upon which the South Carolina courts relied in precluding Cope from presenting his best defense, these experts told the justices in Washington, is a rule designed to preclude, not ensure, wrongful convictions. This shouldn’t be a close call for the Supreme Court. This is about as unfair a trial as a white man can get in this country.