COLUMBIA, S.C. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott apologized publicly Friday to a man falsely accused by deputies and local prosecutors in the May 2006 Mother's Day slaying of the man's wife at a Columbia apartment.
During a news conference, Lott offered the apology to Justin Mallory at the same time he announced that a California man had confessed to the murder of Nekia Mallory three years ago.
The suspect, 25-year-old Joshua Porch, was found by Richland County deputies in Long Beach, Calif., this week, and confessed to the murder. Porch is a former Columbia resident and one-time friend of Justin Mallory who testified against Mallory at trial. Lott declined to say what the motive was behind the killing.
Justin Mallory, a 28-year-old father, was acquitted of murder charges in December, the second time he had been tried for murder. His first trial resulted in a hung jury.
Lott, who invited Mallory to the press conference, said the results of the two trials and his department's willingness to reopen the case show the criminal justice system worked, even though Mallory and his relatives suffered in the short-term.
"We are sorry that our investigation went in the direction that it went," Lott said. "But with the evidence that we had and everything that was presented that way, I think any reasonable person would look at it and say y'all probably went the right way. Luckily, the criminal justice system worked."
Nekia Mallory, 24, was found beaten and stabbed about 3:30 a.m. on May 14, 2006, while her two toddlers slept at the apartment. Justin Mallory discovered his wife's limp body upon returning home from a night out with a friend. He took her blood-stained body in a van to a local hospital, the sheriff's department said.
Lott said initial evidence, including statements from people interviewed, as well as forensic evidence, pointed toward Justin Mallory. He also noted that Richland County prosecutors felt strongly enough to take the case to trial twice. John Meadors, a deputy solicitor who was the prosecutor in the case, declined comment Friday.
Mallory's attorney, Jerry Finney of Columbia, said the family accepts Lott's apology and looks forward to the Porch trial.
But Finney said Mallory had tried repeatedly to tell the sheriff's department to investigate Porch as a suspect and for years, his pleas made no impact.
Porch, who will be extradited from California, was in the couple's apartment the day of the 2006 murder, the sheriff's department said Friday. The Mallorys and Porch had known one another about 18 months before the murder, Mallory said.
"We hope they ask us for our assistance in convicting Josh Porch, who Justin told them from day one to go investigate," Finney said.
Flanked by members of both his family and his slain wife's relatives at his own news conference, Justin Mallory expressed joy and frustration over the three-year ordeal to clear his name.
He said he spent more than 14 months in the Richland County jail awaiting trial, missed his wife's funeral and his daughter's first day of school. During that time, he said he was threatened by inmates, but was able to survive through his faith in God.
"Stuff was taken from me I will never get back," he said. "Thank God for the strength to endure it."
He also said that while he was glad the criminal justice system eventually cleared him, the experience had shaken his faith. He said deputies charged him soon after his wife's body was found because they seemed anxious to get off work.
"They took the easiest alternative, which is locking me up. I'm not an angry guy. I'm blessed. But I just don't want this to happen to nobody else. How many people has this happened to?"
His mother and Nekia Mallory's parents attended Friday's news conference at Finney's office.
Tears welled in the eyes of Nekia Mallory's parents, Randy Gibson and Michelle Riley, as they talked about the strain the families had been under after their daughter's death. They said they were angry with Justin Mallory, and for a long time believed he was the killer, as police had said. But they later came to realize he was telling the truth about his innocence, they said.
Gibson, Nekia Mallory's father, who lives in Asheville, N.C., said he was "overjoyed" the sheriff's department had found the right man. He described his daughter as a sweet, delightful person who can't be forgotten.
Riley, who had moved to Columbia from Asheville in 1996 after she and Gibson divorced, said it has been difficult to explain to the two grandchildren about their mother's death and their father's time in jail. Riley helped care for the children, now 4 and 5, after her daughter died and her son-in-law was in jail. She used to keep a photo of her daughter that the children kissed at night before they went to bed, she said.
The children now live with Justin Mallory, who is employed and lives in Columbia.
"My granddaughter still asks me, 'Where is Mommy?'" Riley said. "She said she misses her mommy. She wants her back so bad."
Nekia and Justin Mallory had been married about a year when she was killed. They had begun dating at Spring Valley High and were high school sweethearts, he said. They attended the school prom together in 1999.
Lott said he decided to reopen the investigation after Mallory was cleared in December. Mallory approached him after the trial and told Lott he wanted to find his wife's killer.
The sheriff said investigators then used DNA evidence they had not looked at before, which led them to Porch. He did not say what kind of DNA evidence investigators found, but a department news release said it was discovered on Nekia Mallory's clothing. The DNA evidence and inconsistencies in statements by Porch led to his arrest Wednesday in California, the sheriff said.
Lott said he was unsure whether his agency will be sued, but added it does not matter because deputies have now done the right thing.
"It was a very difficult case for everybody involved," he said. "But when you come down the bottom line ... justice has finally been done."