COLUMBIA - Some lawmakers are trying to protect the oldest residents of the state from the kind of savagery that killed 85-year-old Proctor Bright.
But their bill, which makes killers eligible for the death penalty if their victim is 70 or older, faces obstacles and has become entangled in the legislative process.
On Monday, 17-year-old Breon Alexandre pleaded guilty and received a 40-year sentence for breaking into Bright's Jasper County home as he slept in July 2008, then beating, shooting and stabbing him.
Alexandre was 15 when he killed Bright, a World War II veteran who had earned a Bronze Star and was about to start a book tour when he was killed. The teen stole $35 and drove Bright's car to meet a girl he had met online.
CASES SIMILAR TO Bright's are relatively uncommon and have held steady in recent years, state data show.
Those 65 and older made up 7 percent of murder victims in 2002 but dipped to 5 percent in 2006, the most recent year numbers are available. For each year from 2002-06, the age group made up 1 percent of aggravated-assault victims.
For the second time, Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence, has introduced H. 3601, named "Jerry's Law" after 75-year-old Geraldine "Jerry" Scott, who was attacked in her Florence home and murdered in 2007. Her killer was sentenced to life in prison for the crime, which he committed when he was 17.
Last month three teens, including a 15-year-old, were charged in the death of 75-year-old Mary Alice Stutts of Dillon County.
"We need to let them know up front what is going to happen to them," said Rep. Jackie Hayes, D-Dillon, a co-sponsor of Crawford's legislation, referring to perpetrators of such crimes.
"We need firm protections for people who cannot protect themselves," she said.
The bill says if the victim is 70 or older and vulnerable because of a handicap or disability, it could be considered aggravating circumstances and factor into whether the killer gets the death penalty.
Currently, criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping and other factors are considered "aggravating" and can be weighed in a death sentence for the crime of murder.
HEATH TAYLOR, the president of the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called Crawford's bill "feel-good legislation" and said aggravating factors in death-penalty cases are related to the severity of the crime, not characteristics of the victim.
"If you open the door there, you open it up to anything. A female murdered could be an aggravating factor, a football coach," Taylor said. "People would be coming back to the Legislature asking for this class and that class."
The legislation would not affect attackers who were minors when they committed violent crimes. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute someone for a crime committed when younger than 18.
Solicitor Duffie Stone has said he would have sought the death penalty for Alexandre if the teen had been 18 when he attacked Bright.
But in Hayes' opinion, even minors who kill the elderly should be eligible for the death penalty in certain situations.
"If he was competent at the time, I think so," Hayes said.
THE BILL, which has the backing of the South Carolina Crime Victims' Council, is stuck after being taken off the House Criminal Law Subcommittee's agenda at least once.
Crawford said it's likely being held up by lawmakers who are defense attorneys.
He said it was peculiar for a bill of this type to receive a fiscal impact statement, a process that further slowed it down. The bill was ultimately estimated to incur a "minimal" cost to the state general fund.
Rep. Keith Kelly, R-Woodruff, who heads the House Criminal Laws Subcommittee, said he has no problem with the intent of Crawford's legislation.
"I understand what the sponsor of that bill is trying to do," Kelly said. "But there'll be some push back on it for arbitrarily setting an age.
"What if they (the victim) are only 50 but in a walker or blind?"
Stephanie Ingersoll contributed to this report.