COLUMBIA — Lawyers for a man serving a life sentence in the rape and murder of his 12-year-old daughter asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to throw out his conviction Tuesday, saying prosecutors were determined to pin the crime on the father no matter what the evidence.
In the days after his daughter was found dead in 2001 in their Rock Hill home, authorities got three confessions from Billy Wayne Cope. But evidence from DNA tests on genetic material found on the girl’s body and clothes pointed to a man who lived down the street.
The new evidence rocked prosecutors, who then molded the facts of the case into a new account of what happened, Cope’s lawyer David Bruck said.
“They were free to come up with a new version, a new explanation, which was the fantastic theory that Billy Wayne Cope and a man that all the evidence showed he had never laid eyes on before did this crime together,” Bruck said.
A jury found Cope and the second man, James Sanders, guilty of murder and both were sentenced to life in prison.
Prosecutors said the jury made the right decision. They note that one of the victim’s sisters testified the house was locked up. Investigators found no sign of forced entry. The crime scene appeared staged. The girl’s body didn’t show some of the signs of a savage attack. A blanket was around her neck, and Cope told investigators he told his daughter she would choke herself if she kept getting wrapped up in it.
“Somebody had to clean it up. Somebody had to re-dress that individual,” Assistant Deputy Attorney General Don Zelenka said.
Prosecutors also showed pictures of the home, which had piles of trash and buckets filled with human waste everywhere. They said there was no way someone unfamiliar with the home could have made it through the rooms and hall in the dark.
Prosecutors point to the three confessions, saying no one would ever admit to sodomizing and killing their daughter if they didn’t do it.
Cope’s lawyers said he was he has mental problems and evidence that could have shown his confessions were false was withheld from jurors. That evidence included a statement from Sanders to a jailhouse informant that he killed the girl after sneaking in a window; proof of several other burglaries and attacks in which Sanders acted alone; and testimony from an expert on false confessions.
If the justices don’t throw the case out, they should at least order a new trial where jurors could consider the evidence that didn’t make the first trial, Bruck said.
“On every point that the state said this was an open and shut case, it turns out it was not an open and shut case. There is doubt on every issue,” Bruck said.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have websites laying out the evidence. Prosecutors created their website after refusing to give interviews for an “NBC Dateline” story that they called a hatchet job.
Both lawyers Tuesday were interrupted by the justices less than a minute after beginning their arguments. The state Court of Appeals first upheld Cope’s conviction, then ruled he couldn’t be convicted of conspiring to rape his daughter with Sanders and then overturned that decision. Both Bruck and Zelenka were asked pointed questions. The justices didn’t immediately rule and will likely consider the case for several months.
Prosecutor’s website: http://www.billywaynecope.com/
Website from Cope’s supporters: http://www.facebook.com/FreeBillyWayneCope